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Brad Pitt Movie ‘Tree of Life’ Wins Cannes Festival’s Top Prize

''Tree of Life
Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken and Brad Pitt in the Terrence Malick film ''Tree of Life." Source: Fox Searchlight via Bloomberg

May 23 (Bloomberg) -- Two directors who made headlines at the Cannes Film Festival for their conduct off screen saw their movies win top awards last night.

Terrence Malick’s “ The Tree of Life” clinched the main Palme d’Or award. The publicity-shy U.S. filmmaker wasn’t there to collect it. He had reporters wondering about his reclusive behavior as he also missed the film’s premiere and press conference, which he left to the picture’s star, Brad Pitt.

Denmark’s Lars von Trier, on the other hand, was highly visible and won plenty of media attention at the world’s leading cinematic event. During the May 18 news briefing for his “Melancholia,” he made comments about Hitler that led the festival to pronounce him persona non grata. That didn’t stop Kirsten Dunst, his lead, from being voted best actress.

“What a week it’s been!” said Dunst, in a strapless gown of silver lame and chiffon, as she picked up the prize. Robert De Niro, the president of the jury, said of “The Tree of Life”: “Most of us felt very clearly that it was the movie. It had the size, the importance, the intention.”

Inaugurated in 1946, the French Riviera event has long played host to directors every bit as dramatic as their movies. In May 1968, a rebellious group led by Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard stormed the main movie theater, hanging from curtains to prevent screenings from taking place; that year’s festival was canceled as a result.

Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is about a 1950s mother and father with different philosophies. Mom (Jessica Chastain) is a believer in doing good and suppressing the crueler strands of human nature. Disciplinarian Dad (played by Pitt) condones the law of the jungle.

Sean Penn

Torn between the two, eldest son Jack (played in adulthood by Sean Penn) questions life’s mysteries. Through him, so does Malick, who was described by Cannes juror Olivier Assayas as “one of the great artists of today.”

Assayas and his fellow judges -- including actors Jude Law and Uma Thurman -- had 20 in-competition movies to choose from.

They handed the best-actor trophy to Jean Dujardin for his role in the black-and-white silent movie “The Artist,” and recognized Denmark’s Nicolas Winding Refn as best director for “Drive.”

Fellow Dane Von Trier made waves when he said at his film’s news conference that, while he long thought his family was Jewish, he found out they were German. That, he said, “also gave me some pleasure.”

“What can I say? I understand Hitler,” said Von Trier, as Dunst, seated beside him, cringed and covered her forehead. “I think he did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end.”

Cannes Ideals

The next day, the festival’s board of directors termed his remarks “unacceptable, intolerable, and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity” embodied by their event.

Cannes 2011 was not without glamour. Johnny Depp stopped by for “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” flanked by Penelope Cruz, the franchise’s first female pirate, who was pregnant during the shoot.

Pitt posed with his wife Angelina Jolie, who was wearing a long black gown, at the “Tree of Life” premiere. And ex-model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, now France’s First Lady, got a cameo as a museum guide in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” which opened the festival on May 11.

Off the red carpet, stars could be seen going about their everyday business. Jude Law quietly helped a lady pull a bulky suitcase off the airport luggage belt. Rob Lowe left a business meeting in jeans and sunglasses. Tilda Swinton went for a walk along the seafront with her boyfriend.

This year’s runner-up Grand Prix award was given out to two movies: Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon A Time in Anatolia,” and Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “The Kid With a Bike.”

The Jury Prize went to Maiwenn’s “Polisse,” inspired by true instances of child abuse reported by Paris’s Brigade de Protection des Mineurs (Child Protection Brigade).

Information on the 64th Cannes Film Festival: http://www.festival-cannes.com.

To contact the writer on the story: Farah Nayeri at farahn@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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