Many directors aim to address the big question of existence, whether it’s through adolescent eyes like Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko or wizened weariness like Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York; they all love to ask, ‘Why the hell are we here?’. The memorable God-botherers, though, tend to have jogged the block a fair bit – think Stanley Kubrick or Wim Wenders, who suggest that if you’re musing existence in the medium of cinema, a beard and slippers seem to help. This year’s Cannes Film Festival sees two of cinemas finest square up like philosophical prize-fighters. The gloves are off, just don’t touch the face, I’m meditating.

Some 38 years after shaping the barbed world of Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis, Terrence Malick is back at the forefront of World Cinema with the Cannes screening of The Tree of Life. Four films on from Badlands, the enigmatic director makes the Palme d’Or grade as a possible favourite. The heavyweight auteur might even turn up. (Averaging a film every seven and a half years there’s certainly room in his schedule).

Cannes will no doubt be weak at the knees for The Tree of Life’s heady mixture of Hollywood celebrity and existential wallop. Starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, it’s billed as a departure for Malick, his renowned visual beauty taking on a surrealist almost sci-fi edge. Very little has been leaked on the project, a tantalising web site offering brief clips, the ‘mothers way’ and ‘fathers way’ baffles the brain and the official trailer supplies more questions than answers. What hit planet earth? Why are all those people in suits on the beach? Is it really possible to miss Brad Pitt’s preposterous moustache?

Trading punches with Malick in the ring of righteousness is Lars Von Trier. No stranger to rueing life, death and talking foxes, the Danish director brings us his “beautiful movie about the end of the world”. Also playing in Cannes, the trailer makes out as a menacing melodrama, but if you scratch under the surface you’re bound to find more. After all, nothing’s ever simple with Lars Von Trier.

Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland, Melancholia threatens an undercurrent of violence and mystery. In the trailer this is mostly pulled off via stargazing and thunderstorms, which strangely reminded me of Caddyshack. Maybe it’s all the greenery? Maybe, if anyone can explain the meaning of life, it’s Chevy Chase’s Ty Webb?

Lars Von Trier has gone on record to say this one’s got an unhappy ending, and he considers all his other movies to end happily. So, considering this one is about the end of the world, he’s only gone and ruined it already, hasn’t he.

Two films designed to make you think is surely a good thing though, suggesting once again that signal that Hollywood’s outlook is turning cerebral. Examining trends tells us so, particularly in the world of 3D. Not just a boy’s toy, we’ve had Pina and the Cave of Forgotten Dreams pulling in the punters and proving that the medium isn’t just for slashers and silliness. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the big bang is tackled James Cameron style.

By Ian Roebuck

Originally published in issue 27 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. April 2011