“The Tree of Life”, an ambitious coming-of-age film that took years for enigmatic US director Terrence Malick to bring to the screen, won top honours at the Cannes festival on Sunday.
Kirsten Dunst took best actress for her role in Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic psychodrama “Melancholia” while France’s Jean Dujardin claimed best actor as the leading man in Michel Hazanavicius’s silent movie “The Artist”.Malick, notoriously publicity shy, was not present to accept one of the most coveted prizes in cinema, leaving one of his co-producers, Bill Pohlad, to speak on his behalf.
“I know he is thrilled with this award, as are all of us,” said Pohlad at the climax of a fast-moving twilight gala awards ceremony that brought down the curtain on the 64th edition of the 12-day film festival on Sunday.
“‘The Tree of Life’ was a long road,” he said of the richly-textured story of a tyrannical father, played by Brad Pitt, and his family of three sons in a Texas town in the 1950s.
Sean Penn played the eldest son as an adult. “About a year ago at this time (when it was expected to screen at Cannes), it seemed even longer, but coming here and having this happen and getting this award tonight has made it all worthwhile.”
The decisions of a nine-member jury led by US acting legend Robert De Niro capped a festival that was overshadowed by the festival’s decision to bar von Trier over remarks — meant in jest, he said — about Adolf Hitler.
“Well, what a week it’s been,” said Dunst, who was visibly uncomfortable when the Danish director uttered his controversial words at a press conference, but who was overwhelmed with joy.
Fellow Dane Nicolas Winding Refn won the best director prize for his high-octane film noir “Drive” about a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway car driver.
The runner-up Grand Prix award was shared by two-time Palme d’Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for “The Kid With a Bike” and Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan for police drama “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”.
French actress-turned-director Maiwenn won the jury prize for another police drama, “Poliss,” her first feature.
Twenty features vied for top honours at the world’s premier film festival, the lion’s share of them this year from European directors, with relatively few from Asia-Pacific and none from Latin America.
Picking the winners with De Niro was a jury that included Hollywood stars Jude Law and Uma Thurman, Hong Kong’s Johnny To and Shi Nansun, and Norway’s Linn Ullmann, daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman.
“I think we did the best that we could do,” said a bleary-eyed De Niro on his way into the awards ceremony.
“It’s difficult when there are so many choices… We had to think our way through them.”
Festival-goers agreed that this year’s edition surpassed last year when foul weather, a weak global economy and an Icelandic volcano that wreaked havoc on European air travel all conspired to put a damper on proceedings.
But it fell to von Trier, a Cannes regular and Palme d’Or winner in 2000 with “Dancer in the Dark”, to add the missing ingredient of controversy when he was asked about his belated discovery of his German heritage.
“I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi,” said the film-maker notorious for black humour and political incorrectness.
Von Trier later apologised, but it failed to stop festival organisers declaring him “persona non grata” — in effect, telling him to keep away from awards night — while retaining his film in competition.
Last year saw the Palme d’Or go to Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul for “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”.