Monumental Symphony

The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Malick, comp. Alexandre Desplat

  • The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Malick, comp. Alexandre Desplat

    Film The Tree of Life questions meaning of life and at the same time it admires it. It searches for answers in Bible and in Universe, connecting what cannot be connected as present and past, life and death. And since the dominant theme is death of son and brother, film is structured as requiem. The very fact of film form made director Malick, who is endlessly in love with (classical) music, to put in foreground, alongside the visual, film sound. In this way story stays completely in background which enables director to turn his film into audio-visual poetry. The role of musician is, therefore, a key role in the creation of film structure but also in the creation of film as poetic work of art.

    Malick hired the only composer who, among famous film composer’s today, was able to complete the mission – Alexandre Desplat. But, as Kubrick did it many years ago (there are many connecting points of Malick’s Tree of Life and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), Malick also decided to start with classical music and only after let composer to approach the movie. Namely, The Tree of Life is backed with temporary score made of numerous different and famous musical works from the classical repertoire. After he temp-scored the movie, Malick gave to Desplat a task to write the music which is as similar to temp scores as possible. Of course, Desplat is neither Hector Berlioz, nor Francois Couperin, nor Johann Sebastian Bach. So, the final musical solution of Malick’s film is again similar to Kubrick’s: where composer wasn’t good enough to imitate classical role models (and this is the ungrateful and almost impossible task even for the greatest), his music is left out, while temporary classical music stayed in the film.
    The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Malick, comp. Alexandre Desplat
    On the other hand, with this musical solution, film didn’t lose anything. In contrary. It is full of music – musical works which are originally composed for the movie and those which are composed long ago for other occasions – and it follows inner logic of half-experimental, half-scientific feature whose genre, after one goes through many layers, is, in fact – drama. In company of John Taverner (and his Funeral Canticles), Hector Berlioz (and his Requiem), Francois Couperin (and his programmatic suites), Bach’s fugues (including the well known Toccata and fugue in d minor), Brahms’ symphonies (among which the Fourth plays important dramaturgic role), Gustav Mahler (whose First Symphony announces and mirrors death as an event and as an emotion), Zbigniew Preisner (whose beautiful Lacrymosa begins the row of movements of film’s mass for the dead, although Malick shows us the birth of the Universe at the same time), Bedřich Smetana (and his Moldau which doesn't celebrate the river, but life and children’s game) and numerous other composers – Alexandre Desplat with his original film music didn't have a chance to find his place at the foreground at film’s soundtrack.

    Desplat’s musical sensibility is the one which Malick searched for, but among the greatest composers of all times he could only – engage. Also, his score, in the comparison with other musical works, is too static, without a trace of any kind of development (Henryk Gorécky’s Third Symphony is similarly composed, but here are no composer’s gaps and bad solutions, which exist in Desplat’s score).
    The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Malick, comp. Alexandre Desplat
    Since Malick selected temporary music carefully, Desplat’s score stayed like a kind of connection glue for numerous classical musical works of celebrate composers whose genius raises above the adaptability of composer of original film score. But in the film, one cannot even hear the role of music as a connection glue, because Malick directed music and edited it to pictures so well, that one can say that he is the true film composer: all musical works that are used in the film flow from one to the other creating a monumental symphony which is firmly bound to Malick’s philosophy. This philosophy is contained in the heavy life drama on the one hand, but also in the visual and sound beauty, whose specific poetry is sometimes at the edge to become transcendental.

    © Irena Paulus,, 20 September 2011