Of Grief and Closure

Directed by Terrence Malick 
With Brad PittSean PennJessica Chastain
Directed by Julie Bertuccelli 
With Charlotte Gainsbourg, Morgana Davies

The thing about grief is that you never know when it’s going to hit you, or how far it’ll take you. 

Here are two films that bear almost the same name, that were released around the same time (summer 2011), and which both deal with the effects of grief on a family, sometimes for a very long time. Curiously, both make use the tree as a means of catharsis and as a metaphor for the origins and expanse of life.

In The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick takes us to a sleepy Texas town in the 1950’s, before the massive suburban developments, back to a time where houses were built on enough land for the children to play on and where families could plant vegetables for a bit of self-sufficiency. In a story that spans over two generations, Brad Pitt, as the authoritative father, does his best to keep the bread on the table through uncertain times. Jessica Chastain plays the devoted mother of their three boys and much of the film follows their slow, mundane lives.

Until the day a letter comes in the mail. It’s now the late 60’s, the United States is involved in a war abroad, and the news of the loss of a son forever shatters the peace in the family. (Although it is not explicit, the viewer is expected to read between the lines, count the years, and assume that the now 18 year old son has been killed in Vietnam).

From that point on, everything changes for them, but Malick chooses to maintain the long pans, the secretive, almost dialog-free scenes, to subtly convey reflective thought and questioning until a sort of redemption some forty years later, relayed by Sean Penn’s character, one of the two remaining sons and the film’s narrative voice.

The Tree Of Life revolves around an existential interrogation, asking God where people go when they die, why they were taken from us, what are the origins of life on earth, our goals here, our destiny…

It is quite a beautiful, ethereal film, with breathtakingly gorgeous images and a billowing soundtrack (Preisner’s touching Lacrimosa and Mahler’s majestic Symphony No. 1, to name a few). Not unlike Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the viewer is brought into a contemplative state, for very long lapses of time. Sublime images of the Earth in various stages of evolution — blue-green river deltas flowing into oceans, molten magma, cosmic motion — drown out all notions of reality, time, space, and anything but this great expanse of matter that is the universe.

Although, from a scenario point of view, it can be argued that the CGI dinosaur scenes may be over the top for many viewers, it remains that the cinematography, in its masterful use of light and transparency — the weightlessness of a sheer curtain undulating in the breeze against a setting sun — provides an aesthetically soothing visual anchor to Malick’s poetry.

The Tree, with Charlotte Gainsbourg, on the other hand, is much less engaging but nonetheless entertaining for its pseudo-spiritual connotations. Here, upon the unexpected and untimely death of the father of a family, the man’s soul is absorbed by the fig tree that surrounds their home.

The grief affects each member differently, but strikes Gainsbourg’s character, Dawn, severely, and she spirals into a lethargic depression. The tree soon becomes a refuge for her and 8-year old Simone (played beautifully by Morgana Davies) who had a very special connection with her father. She begins to converse with the tree as though he were listening through the bark, and remains vehemently opposed to “moving on,” insisting that the grieving period is not over. Indeed, the tree may have a will of its own as well, seemingly delivering messages from beyond, like when a huge branch crashes through Dawn’s bedroom as she comes home from her first date with another man…

In an unfortunately unbelievable scene where a hurricane uproots the massive centennial tree, the house all but blows away while somehow the family survives by snuggling underneath it, nature seems to signal that it is time to get closure by leavingthese roots behind and setting up new ones elsewhere, and by carrying only memories of the past.

What makes The Tree interesting to watch is its rendition of life in rural Australia, depicted by the nonchalant, no-frills, rootsy lifestyle of the characters. It is also an opportunity to showcase the talent of young actress Morgana Davies, who is so very genuine as the gutsy tom-boy.

In both films the tree is the element from the natural realm which represents the origins of life, of genealogy, of attachment and of humanity as a whole. The tree also provides respite and silent answers to the excruciating questions of belonging that plague those who survive the death of a family member. Both films deal with the cataclysm of loss as a central theme, the importance of grief as a process, and the cathartic release of detachment as a rite of passage.