Between the surreal aesthetics of The Tree of Life and Paprika and the grittiness of The Bridge on the River Kwai, this has been a week of contrasts, to say the least.
The Tree of Life (Terrance Malick, 2011)
You know what? I’m disappointed in you, internet. I was going into this film expecting something ridiculously pretentious, and what I got was actually pretty good. Yes, The Tree of Life is an unabashed arthouse film and one could make a fairly defensible case that it is style over substance. It especially doesn’t appear to help that the plot is rather simple despite potentially going on for three hours and that an audience in France was shown the scenes out of order and nobody noticed. However, if you can get past all of that, you’ll be rewarded with an experience that I think can only be described as what would happen if somebody took the energy of 2001: A Space Odyssey and used it to spice up an otherwise mundane slice-of-life story. The results are better than it sounds.
So why didn’t this picture supposedly notorious for its pretentiousness manage to offend on that front? I think the simplest answer is that in the years since 2011, there have been countless directors who rammed up the pretentiousness to ridiculous levels on top of being either excessively preachy (First Reformed, High Life, etc.) or sophomorically edgy (Ex Machina, The Witch, etc.). On the back of that, The Tree of Life barely made a dent. Sure, The Tree of Life takes some refuge in its incomprehensibility, but it still manages to exclude a positive vibe at the end of the day. In a battle between the dreamer and the edgelord, the dreamer wins every time.
Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)
We have ospreyshire to thank for drawing my attention to this film. A lot of people compare Inception to Paprika with some calling plagiarism on Christopher Nolan’s part. I can buy that artists would be looking outside of the medium for ideas because, let’s face it, the 2000s wasn’t an especially great decade for cinema (although weirdly, I find its best films tend to be better than the best films of the 2010s despite the latter arguably having a greater number of good films). I haven’t seen Inception in a while, so I couldn’t really make a judgement call on that, but if it’s one film that I find is very similar to Paprika, it would be Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Both films really capture that “Random stuff is happening, but I’ll just go along with it” feeling dreams have in how the impossibilities that occur start off innocuous enough before ramping the craziness up exponentially. With stellar animation borne from a deep imagination, and you have yourself a classic. Paprika was Satoshi Kon’s final film, and although I haven’t seen any of his other work, I can safely say he ended his career on a high note.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)
A lot of people (me included) thought that iconic whistling theme actually originated in this film. I was kind of surprised to learn that it was a real song sung in World War II, but it featured lyrics I had heard of. I just never made the connection until I read up about this film after the fact and learned that David Lean wanted the soldiers to sing the song as opposed to just whistling it (unfortunately, the producer wouldn’t let him put that in the film).
One might take that as a sign that The Bridge on the River Kwai is your typical, sanitized, 1950s-era depiction of the Second World War. Actually watching it reveals it to be the single least romantic film of its day. While it doesn’t go to Saving Private Ryan levels of grittiness, that it depicts a character whose romanticism gets the better of him as completely foolish while the one making rational decisions is one in the right makes it remarkably ahead of its time, almost acting as a rough precursor to Apocalypse Now. The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of those films that’s famous for being a beloved classic, and it’s a distinction well deserved.