While the foreplay between the Cannes Film Festival and Terrence Malick’s complex rumination The Tree of Life has been going on for well over a year, it finally climaxed with this morning’s 8:30 AM press screening. There was such anticipation for this film that the cavernous 2300-seat Lumiere Theatre at the Palais was completely full a half hour ahead of showtime — unprecedented. Reactions afterwards seem to be mixed. There was a smattering of loud boos when the picture went to black at the end, but then good (but not spectacular) applause once Malick’s name came up onscreen. One columnist immediately emailed a friend, “the film is terrible,” while another critic rushed to print calling it “major.”

The movie splits its time between the lives of a family in 1950’s Texas with cosmic images of how the Universe was created, a couple of dinosaur cameos and bigger metaphysical questions about our existence than anyone can answer in a 2-hour, 18-minute movie, even Terrence Malick. It’s not a traditional kind of narrative but rather an experience meant to inspire deep thought about our own lives in a greater context. For those special effects sequences detailing the beginnings of time alone the  three companies whose logos appear at the top of the film (Fox Searchlight, Summit, River Road) should be doing everything they can to insure this gets booked on to every available IMAX screen. It’s a visual stunner, as you might expect from a man whose four previous films were Days Of Heaven,  Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World.

Four-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was behind the camera and did a sterling job juxtaposing between small-town Texas and the evolution of the world, no easy task. Certainly what’s on display in this much-delayed work is vintage Malick, the kind of auteur Cannes loves (he won Best Director here for Days Of Heaven in 1978), but it can’t help but divide audiences the way many great art films do. It can be compared in ways to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also split audiences at the time but now is regarded a true classic (not surprisingly, 2001 special effects wizard Douglas Trumball consulted here too).

Some people have the patience and curiosity to endlessly explore movies like this like they would a great painting, others just want the normal popcorn fare. This is anything but that as principals, including star (and producer) Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, tried to explain at the press conference that followed the screening. Missing was co-star Sean Penn, who is en route from Haiti to Cannes for tonight’s premiere (and the preem of his other film here later in the week, This Must Be The Place, as well as Wednesday night’s Cinema For Peace dinner at the Carlton where he is being honored for his humanitarian work) according to producer Bill Pohlad, who also appeared on the panel with producers Grant Hill, Sarah Green and Dede Gardner (Pitt’s producing partner). Most notably absent though was Malick himself, a highly unusual occurence at a Cannes press conference. This is a director-driven fest if ever there was one. Green explained away the absence of the ultra-reclusive helmer. “Mr. Malick is very shy. He likes to think his work can speak for himself,” she said, and when pressed further, it was emphasized “he’s really shy.” The fact is Malick is here for the premiere and will be walking the red carpet tonight, which is an easy thing in Cannes since at premieres directors just wave, pose for pictures and soak up the adulation. One thing they don’t have to do is talk. Searchlight co-president Nancy Utley told me a few weeks ago that Malick would be travelling to Cannes but likely unavailable while he was here. He never gives interviews, not even in the official press notes.

It really didn’t matter, since most of the questions were about Malick anyway, even with Pitt sitting right there in the middle. Pitt explained how he loved Malick’s directorial style. “I could go on about him for a couple of days. He was more interested in capturing what might be happening on that day (rather than what’s in the script), waiting for the truth to come. There was only one light on the set, the rest was all natural and handheld. I don’t know that I could do this a lot. It was exhausting, but you see what you get,” he said. Of this experience Pitt also added, “It’s changed everything I’ve done since. For me, the best moments are not pre-conceived or planned. I now try to go off script and see what happens.”

Pitt said he and Plan B Entertainment partner Gardner jumped on board because they wanted to see Malick’s script made. “I was surprised by the structure. It’s quite ingenious merging the micro with the macro and finding parallel truths in it,” he said. As for the version that was meant to originally come to Cannes last year but was eventually deemed “not ready” compared with the version being debuted today, Pohlad said “there isn’t a huge difference, but there were refinements.”

The film is certainly stirring up talk here, so Malick, the Garbo of directors, will get his wish. People will decide for themselves. As I mentioned in a piece yesterday, Chastain told me Sunday she likes to tell people “this is a movie that could change cinema.” After seeing The Tree of Life, I would say that would only be possible if studios start giving extrordinary visionary but eclectic directors like Malick big budgets to bring their personal art to the screen — and that ain’t happening in Hollywood’s corporate culture anytime soon. Bottom line is every now and then one slips through the system, gets made, even released with the director’s vision intact. And that’s why we’ve finally got this one to argue about up and down the Croisette today.

Before the fest started, many in the media were predicting Malick, with his film sight-unseen, could be the one to beat for the Palme d’Or. It’s certainly possible, but with so many of Cannes’ favorite auteur directors still to come this week, the race for Sunday’s top honors is just heating up.