CANNES AWARD SHOCKER: Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree Of Life’ Wins Palme d’Or

In the end, it was the movie that has been the most talked about over the past two Cannes Film Festivals, so it was probably preordained, even in a great year for movies like this one has been, that Terrence Malick’s epic dissertation on life  would win the big prize, the Palme d’Or, and so it has. But Malick wasn’t there to accept for The Tree of Life, and instead producers Bill Pohlad and Dede Gardner took the stage, saying he was too shy to show, a line they first used in their post-screening press conference and later tonight at a post-awards news conference. They were joined at the press confab by a jubilant Patrick Wachsberger of Summit, who has been handling international distribution, and EuropaCorp’s Luc Besson. Pohlad said he talked to Malick just before the show and said, “I think there’s a chance we might win something.” Gardner said Malick told her he would have thanked his wife and parents if he were there, but of course he wasn’t there. Earlier in the week at the premiere, he skipped the news conference and the red carpet but appeared in the theatre to take applause and see the film. The Tree of Life was the sole competition entry to be designated as American, even though two other winners tonight, France’s The Artist and Denmark’s Drive, were both shot in L.A. but are classified this way because of the director’s nationality.

First up for the press, though, was the jury led by Robert De Niro and including Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Linn Ullmann, Olivier Assayas, Mahamat Saleh-Haroun, Johnnie To, Nansun Shi and  Martina Gusman. De Niro got the lion’s share of questions and, as usual, was a man of few words in explaining the jury’s thinking on the Palme d’Or selection. “Most of us felt very clearly it was the movie, the size of it, the importance seemed to fit the prize. Other movies were good also. It’s a difficult process, and it’s never quite 100%, but most of us thought it was terriifc,” he said and was even more succinct when asked about screenplay winner Joseph Cedar’s Footnote (“very well written”), or picking French director Maiwenn’s cop drama Poliss for the Jury Prize (“best solution for what we felt and that’s it”). In fact, he repeatedly explained they had to make a decision, and these results are what they came up with, emphasizing there were no heated discussions on anything (“drama should be on the screen,” he said), even the Lars von Trier situation in which the filmmaker, but not his film, was banned for his controversial comments about Nazis and Hitler in a press conference  following the screening of Melancholia (for which the Jury awarded Kirsten Dunst Best Actress). “Whatever was gonna be was gonna be,” De Niro explained. “The festival accepted the film, that was what was decided and that’s fine.”

French director Assayas added, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best films, a great film. We all agree about the condemnation (of his remarks), but I loved the film.” Asked by an Italian whether they seriously considered Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place, De Niro said that all movies were taken into discussion and said he liked it and thought Sean Penn was terrific but, you guessed it, “as a group that’s what we decided.”

Law did reveal some non-award winners that they had “serious” discussions about in the positive sense, including Sleeping Beauty, La Havre, Pater, the “Pope” film (Habemus Papam), a list to which Ullmann then added Pedro Almodovar’s film The Skin I Live In. As to whether they considered the widely popular black-and-white silent The Artist for the Palme d’Or, De Niro said the rules state only one award per film, and they gave it Best Actor for Jean Dujardin.

Ullmann mentioned the wide variety of movies dealing with themes of vulnerability, captivity and children, pointing out the large number of “amazing child performances” in the competition this year. She also praised De Niro as being “a very democratic president and a good listening president.”

All of the winners came back to talk to the world’s entertainment press with the exception of Dunst, who most likely did not want to have to address the inevitable von Trier “Hitler” questions, particularly after being seen all over YouTube squirming through the remarks the first time he said them at the news conference. She was graceful, though, in her acceptance speech, saying in part, “Wow what a week we’ve had. I want to thank the Cannes Film Festival for keeping our movie in competition, and Lars for making a brave film.”

Drive’s Best Director winner Nicolas Winding Refn thanked a number of people including one person for turning him on to “Russian oil money” so he could make his film in L.A. He and Ryan Gosling, who was with him at the ceremony and afterwards at the news conference, plan to reteam on a “big Hollywood film” for Warner Bros and Joel Silver, a remake of Logan’s Run. At a lunch yesterday, both talked to me about it, but Gosling said it was just in delvelopment so far and Refn said it has to take the original story and go way into the future now. Both are a mutual admiration society. Drive opens Sept. 16 according to Bob Berney, who runs FilmDistrict, which is distributing. He has high awards hopes elsewhere and agreed with me that Albert Brooks’ startling turn as a slimy villain could net him an Oscar nomination. Asked about a Drive 2 sequel, Refn jokingly said it “should have two drivers instead of just one.” Next up for Refn is a film shooting in Bangkok, and Gosling is reteaming with Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance.

Best Actor winner DuJardin (The Artist) got the biggest ovation of the night and did a little dance upon hitting the stage. He told the press, “I’m in another world. I thought it was impossible to get the money to make it even though it was a wonderful idea. I’m gonna make the most of this. I would be stupid not to.” But that doesn’t include Hollywood films necessarily. “I’m a French actor, I want to do French films.” The Weinstein Company will release the fllm in late fall, while Warner Bros has it in France. This will be one to watch during Oscar season. Dujardin could be another Roberto Begnini waiting to happen in the Best Actor race, although I wish he had given more credit to his Jack Russell terrier co-star Uggy.

The jury’s split of the Grand Prize (second place) was interesting in that it went to two former Cannes winners back with more of the same, and with Malick taking top honors that makes it three former winners (he won Best Director in 1978 for Days Of Heaven) grabbing the top three prizes. The Dardenne brothers have won two Palme d’Ors and said they were thrilled to get a prize, even an unaccustomed second place one, for their Kid With A Bike.

Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan seemed even more surprised than I was that his very long, very slow Once Upon a Time In Anatolia got a prize at all, particularly since it was the absolute last film of the competition to screen, not even ending its premiere showing until after 1 AM Sunday morning. “My film is not easy, especially on the last day. I thought that could be quite tiring for the jury and the press as well,” he said and I will SECOND that. Its Cannes imprimatur may help it get U.S. distriiubtion like his 2008 winner, Three Monkeys, but good luck trying to drum up an audience for this one.

It’s quite interesting that no matter who seems to be on the jury, they often go to the same well in Cannes, where it appears minimalist filmmakers like Malick, the Dardennes and Ceylan still rule. I guess they have a right to do what they want, but with such a great year I think it’s a shame there couldn’t be some love for Almadovar’s provocative The Skin I Live In, Aki Kaurismaki’s wonderful La Havre, Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papam and certainly Tilda Swinton’s towering work in We Need To Talk About Kevin, which was also brilliantly directed by Lynne Ramsay.

But that’s the beauty of Cannes. Everyone’s got an opinion and are not afraid to express it anywhere you go in this town. Perhaps, then, it’s entirely appropiate that a jury headed by De Niro, a man who does not use a lot of words, honored so many films that didn’t use them much either including the silent The Artist, The Tree Of Life, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, Drive and Kid With The Bike.

Some of the films in the other competitions like Directors’ Fortnight winner Les Geants and Critics Week pick Take Shelter along with many in Un Certain Regard were just as good as the main competition winners. It was a bountiful year all around from the films to the market to the weather — sunny every day in every way, a big turnaround for Cannes and hopefully a portent of things to come for the industry. Already the festival’s very well received opener, Midnight In Paris, is breaking records for Woody Allen, and Tree Of Life has already opened in France, so this Palme d’Or could really mean something business-wise. The award hasn’t meant much in America, but with Tree opening next week the publicity value is better than usual.

Cannes is an intoxicating place at festival time, a place where film rules in every way 24/7. To quote a line from one of the official entries this year, Alain Cavalier’s Pater: “If it is a movie, it’s real.”

It was very real for the last 12 days on the Cote d’Azur.