Malick plays often with traditional images. That is the case of his lovely homo bulla: baby Jack chasing soap bubbles.
The Roman saying “man is a bubble” had a great iconographic fortune in the West from the 16th century on. Erasmus tells us:
Nature Blowing Bubbles for her Children (Tate). The oldest chasing bubbles scene dates 1565 (Hadrianus Junius, Emblemata, XVI). The number of the bubbles in the film is indeed meaningfull: this is an orgy of allusions and illusions that wants to make us run in every direction.
This is, of course, our position towards Malick’s films. Get too close, start to question, investigate, follow the clues, from woman’s feet (the classic symbol of fetishism) to the nightgown – dare to touch; why this panic? - and our childhood in Malick’s garden will abruptly and permanently be wiped out:
But a bubble he caught.”
(R. Dagley, The Sage and the Fool)
What is made of nothing, nothing will become. Vanitas comes from vanus: empty, void (unsubstantial, deceptive, etc.). Only fools chase things “full of nothing”. Like bubbles, like Malick’s empty hands. That is the obvious joke with Godard-Bresson in the last film. Its title should be understood primarily as: a praise, a gift, a tribute, a pray to the wonder, the wonder of Nature being able to give what it doesn’t possess – Grace. Malick’s usual mix of solipsism and sacrifice.
Humana fragilitas finds other classic metaphors in The Tree of Life. Like the candle. Like the leaf, that dead leaf seen when the baby arrives his home. The leaf blown by the wind, a theme that goes back to Homer. Malick cuts the exact moment the leaf starts moving, creating a relation with the life starting its way. But this apparently innocent and unimaginative detail is one of those in which the “psychopathic touch” shines bright, much more than with the bubbles. Guess: if we are the leaf, who is the samurai?