A hidden life: the new beginning of Terrence Malick [Critique]

Arte continues its Cannes cycle with one of the favorites of the 2019 edition.

This evening, Arte offers you A hidden lifeof Terrence Malick. Also see in replay on the channel's website. We are sharing our review again, initially posted online when it was discovered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

Writing about Terrence Malick is a tricky task. So, we might as well go back to basics. And there are a few certainties: we are not about to forget the Cannes screening ofA hidden life. After a few images, wet eyes, dilated pupils, we knew we would never forget this session. The film follows the journey of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant believer who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and ended up beheaded in 1943. From Arcadian beginnings (in sublime landscapes) to his transcendental bankruptcy and his dark end (the scenes in the Nazi prison and execution), we discovered a sublime, stretched fresco, which immediately stood out as one of the director's peaks. Malick was back.

We said it earlier in this magazine: after The Tree of Life, the filmmaker seemed to be heading towards ever more abstraction, taking the (fragmented) paths of autofiction to calibrate films that were more and more inscrutable, more and more mysterious and ethereal. Perfectly, Knights of Cup And Song to Song : an experimental trilogy imagining a new cinematographic language – radical, poetic – flirting with the crumbly and the indescribable. The pantheistic and lyrical Malick of the early days would have given way to the ascetic, naked and die-hard Terrence. Till today. Until A hidden life which marks the return to the elegy, to the past and to the story.

We can analyze his films as much as we want, rationalize his work-world, Malick is above all an artist who knows how to overwhelm with emotion through the arrangement of the spectator's sensations. His films speak for themselves. In A hidden life, there are flashes of self-sufficient images, words, sounds. A motorcycle that travels through a green countryside and it is the arrival in Eden. The same shot slipped into the end will mark the memory of paradise lost. An old woman who barely moves in a window frame and it is the moral disapproval of a mother who sees her son-in-law topple over; the storm that falls on the village seals the moral compromise of a country. If we agree to let go, to listen, to (really) see, then the dizziness is total.

Malick knows like no one (except perhaps the great Japanese – Kurosawa and Miyazaki) how to capture the power of life through the poetry of thrill, candor and wonder. The green countryside, the blue sky, the gusts of wind or a storm from which one shelters under a building: the viewer vibrates to the rhythm of the falling leaves, the work in the fields and the water of a river which flows flows. He abused it, but here, it's what allows us to live the experience and the fall of the main character. The elegiac chronicle of a paradise where trivial events, cries, games, repetition of meals, rebellious escapes order the world, and from which Franz will move away as he takes the path of civil disobedience.

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And the road – like the film – will be long. Franz is immersed in a warm and threatening chiaroscuro. We hear his inner questions (the rhapsody of the voice-overs), but we also touch on the deep mystery of his destiny guided by something greater. Full awareness of one's refusal, total understanding of one's action, deserves time. The time to understand the depth of the gesture, the time to understand how his place within the family and the village will change, to see the fear and pain written on the faces of his wife and his children, and to imagine the suffocating atmosphere which gradually corrupts the countryside as Nazism advances.

What Terrence Malick tells is the story of a faith. Franz must recognize that his act of resistance will destroy his life, his family and everything he loves, and for what? Too little impact. In any case, that’s what his wife told him (“We cannot change the world, the world is stronger”), even if the final quote from George Eliott (which gives its title to the film) softens the feeling of vanity: “If things do not go as badly as they might have gone for you and me, we are indebted in part to those who faithfully lived a hidden life and who lie in forsaken graves. »

Shot digitally, with an urgency that recalls The Red line Or The new World, A hidden life is indeed a Stations of the Cross (openly Christ-like), the portrait of a man in crisis and an intimate epic which shows the immense strength that must be deployed to resist and have the courage to cling to virtue. A breakup film? A questioning of his cinema? By returning to a more solid narrative structure, by putting its feet back on the soft ground of the past (to better illuminate the present), A Hidden Life is a turning point.

But it is also the continuation of the questions initiated in Song to Song (whose title referred to the Song of SongsSong of Songs in English). Two years before this Hidden life, Malick attempted a return to the novel, went back to telling a story and found real characters. His rockers were no longer spectral presences as in his previous films, but characters in search – “I didn’t know I had a soul”, said Faye, Rooney Mara's character. By following her journey to meet herself, by observing her quest for self (and faith), Malick announced Franz's path towards interiority.

Song to Song chronicled Faye's transition from a life of jumping from one song to another to a life of experiencing inner singing. From pure abstraction to incarnation, from theory to human affairs. Obviously, this is the central subject of this Hidden life, which looks at Franz's struggle between the temptation to abdicate and his thirst for transcendence. When we know that Malick has just filmed A Life of Jesus (with Matthias Schoenaerts and Mark Rylance), we wonder if Song to Song And A hidden life are not in reality the preparation of this film that we await with new faith.

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