Terrence Malick's magnum opus The Tree of Life deservedly won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes International Film Festival this year. It is a story about existence but one that, like much of its subject, has no obvious narrative arc.
The film, which opens today in the UAE, is a bold attempt to analyse the effects of religion and science on the human psyche. The first hour is mostly taken up with a bewildering sequence that takes us from the formation of the stars through the evolution of the planet to dinosaurs and, eventually, humanity.
The evolutionary theme is also apparent in the appearance of what at first seems like a typical American family. In a potted history with action jumping back and forth in time, we see a mother and father, played by Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, raising their three sons.
The events depicted range from the seemingly casual - the boys running around in the garden - to more dramatic moments, right up to seeing the grown-up middle son (played by Sean Penn), wandering around the building housing his architectural practice as he tries to make sense of life.
Making sense of life, or at least trying to piece together a coherent story from its many fragments, is something that strikes a chord with Chastain, who, by the time she got to Cannes in May, had been waiting a long time for the premiere of The Tree of Life. As it happened, she was also in the south of France to promote Take Shelter, showing in Critics Week, in which she again had the role of a wife in a stormy relationship. This time, her husband was played by the Revolutionary Road star Michael Shannon.
Chastain actually shot most of her scenes for The Tree of Life four years ago. The wait, of course, was something that one might expect when working with a reclusive director such as Malick, who has made only five films in four decades.
"A difference with Terrence Malick was there was so much time," says Chastain. "I was on set for over three months and in rehearsal for months before that, and on most films the actors come to set and have to shoot together on that day."
The process also continued long after the cameras had finished rolling. The California-based actress would be on the set of another film, or even at her parents' house for Thanksgiving, when she would get a call from Malick asking her to record some more lines for the film's voice-over. A courier package containing up to 40 pages would be sent, and the actress would dutifully go to a sound booth, spending as much as three hours recording the lines.
This was done so many times that Chastain cannot even remember what lines were recorded where. All except one.
"There is only one thing that I know where it came from," she says. "In the movie at the very start of the film, a bit that is also in the movie trailer, it's where I talk about there being two ways in life, grace and nature, and you hear birds singing. The line is from a Thomas à Kempis poem, which I think is a lot of what the movie is about, and Malick pulled it out on set one day and I started to read it into the microphone and the birds were actual birds just randomly singing outside. I've read the poem since in sound booths and stuff, but the one he liked the most was the one that he took that day on set."
Chastain, who is working with Malick again in an as-yet untitled project with the actors Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz, speaks of the auteur in an affectionate tone. She defends his right to privacy and refusal to talk about himself in public. The camera-shy auteur did not even pick up the Palme d'Or award at Cannes, leaving that honour to the producers of the film.
As for working with Pitt, playing his wife, she says, with considerable understatement: "It isn't a bad gig."
In Take Shelter, Chastain plays a woman who is trying to help her husband through a mental breakdown - forced to watch as he begins to have apocalyptic dreams in which storms destroy their house and home.
These delusions affect his ability to function when awake and troubles emerge in their marriage as he loses his job and makes a plan to build a shelter to protect his family from the storm he is convinced will come. Much as she does in The Tree of Life, Chastain shows a woman supporting her man through thick and thin. But being the supportive partner is not something the 30-year-old actress is used to in her own life.
"It's funny because I'm not married," says. "I don't have any children. In so many parts, I play a role that is different from me in reality. So I always have to find something that helps me relate to the character. So for this one I had to think about parts of my life and relationships that seemed pertinent." Reflecting on her younger brothers and sisters and how she felt about them was one example of that, she adds.
Although relatively unknown before The Tree of Life, Chastain appears in half a dozen films released this year. Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, she seems to be everywhere, in the process marking herself as an actress to watch over the next few years. There are at least four more films in the pipeline for Chastain, and just last week it was reported that she had signed on to play Princess Diana in a British drama based on her secret but doomed affair with the heart surgeon Hasnat Khan.
This year, she has played a younger version of Helen Mirren's Mossad agent alongside Sam Worthington in The Debt, a detective, again with Worthington, in a thriller based on real-life murders in Texas Killing Fields. The Julliard-trained, California-born actress has a theatre background, which came in handy for Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes's contemporary version of Shakespeare's Roman tragedy (she plays Virgilia, another wife of a tempestuous man battered by events he has helped to shape). The film is set in the present day and uses suburban industrial locations.
But perhaps the film that has done most to introduce her to a wider audience is The Help, in which she assumes the role of the delicate southerner Celia Foote. Financed by Image Nation, the film arm of Abu Dhabi Media, which also owns The National, The Help is an adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's New York Times best-selling novel of the same name. Chastain's character is ostracised by the other women in a southern US town for being an outsider who manages to bag the town catch.
Celia employs a maid in secret in an attempt to impress her husband.
"It's nice to do a comedy," she says.
"It was just nice to have my agent go and see the film and come back and say, 'You're funny.' "