A Golden Palm for The Tree of Life

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Valery Hache / AFP / Getty Images

Producers Bill Pohlad and Dede Gardner speak at Cannes after their film "The Tree of Life" was awarded the Palme D'Or.

The shy guy was a no-show again, and this time as the guest of honor. The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s grand view of the universe as reflected in one suburban Texas family in the 1950s, won the Palme d’Or, the top prize of the 64th Cannes Film Festival. Yet the notoriously reticent director was AWOL from the closing ceremony, sending producer Bill Pohlad in his stead to tell Jury President Robert De Niro and the black-tie audience in the Grand Palais’ Lumière Theatre, “I know he is thrilled with this award.”

Some of the journalists in the adjacent Debussy Theatre, watching the clôture on closed-circuit TV, were not thrilled. Boos erupted in the audience, answered by polite applause. But there’s little question that The Tree of Life, in its mixture of the cosmic and the microscopic, possessed the ambition and vision that does the Palme d’Or proud. Fox Searchlight opens the films in a few U.S. markets this Friday; and if Malick does not win over millions of adherents among American moviegoers, Brad Pitt’s high-wire, live-wire performance as the head of the O’Brien family should be remembered when other people besides the Cannes Jury members hand out their awards at the end of the year.

The list of winners:

Palme d’Or: The Tree of Life
Grand Prix: (tie) The Kid With a Bike and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Prix du Jury: Polisse
Prix de la Mise en Scene (Best Director): Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive
Prix du Scenario (Best Screenplay): Joseph Cedar, Footnote
Camera d’Or (Best First Feature): Las Acacias
Prix d’interpretation masculine (Best Actor): Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Prix d’interpretation feminine (Best Actress): Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
Palme d’Or (short film): Cross Country

As the biggest movie star to head the Jury since Clint Eastwood in 1994 (when Pulp Fiction won), De Niro received a hero’s welcome when he was introduced. He gallantly maneuvered an introduction mostly in French — thanking his “compagnons” on the Jury, praising the experience as “très interessant” — before he gave up and said, “So, thank you,” to further, boisterous accolades.

In a Festival of major expectations and minor disappointments, the Palmarès (as the 45-minute closing ceremony is known) boasted its own snippets of drama, star quality, comedy and embarrassments. When Dunst, a popular choice, won the Actress award, she synopsized the four days since Melancholia opened — and director Lars von Trier was censured by the Festival for his injudicious jokes about Hitler and the Nazis — by saying, “What a week it’s been!” She expressed her gratitude to the Festival for allowing our film to still be in Competition.” When she thanked von Trier, a gust of cheers could be heard in the big auditorium. Whatever the opinions of the film and its director, the Jury’s way of rewarding it and him showed diplomatic aplomb.

More warm applause greeted The Artist‘s Dujardin, Best Actor winner as the silent-movie star whose career tailspins when in the new talkie era. As charmant in person as on screen, Dujardin kissed his presenter, Catherine Deneuve, flashed his mile-wide smile at the crowd, then did a few steps from the tap dance that ends Michel Hazanvicious’ film — perhaps the one picture in the Competition that has a chance of connecting with the hearts of American audiences.

The Israeli drama Footnote took its well-deserved screenplay prize; as its auteur, Joseph Cedar, was still en route from Tel Aviv, his producer announced that Cedar was dedicating his award to Don Krim, the passionate, pioneering boss of the American distributor Kino International, an invaluable resource for silent masterpieces and modern masters like Cedar and Wong Kar-wai. Krim died Friday, at 65, after a yearlong battle with cancer.

Another lovely moment was provided by the Danish-American Nicolas Winding Refn, a semi-surprise winner of the Director prize for his low-octane crime drama Drive, who offered his fondest tribute to his wife Liv. “You are the real prize,” he said, holding his award. “This is just make-believe.”

The annual prizes almost always include a real head-scratcher: a film no one but the Jury seemed to like. Last year Mathieu Amalric’s slipshod road show Tournée (On Tour) implausibly won the Best Director citation. Tonight’s Etes-vous Kidding? award — official, the third-place Jury Prize — went to another haphazard crime slog, Poliss. Maïwenn (Le Besco), the film’s director and co-star, clambered up on stage and, gasping for air as if she’d sprinted here from Paris, gave the evening’s longest, most incomprehensible speech, finally summoning her entire cast to join her on stage as if they had all just won the Palme d’Or.

The runner-up Grand Jury prize was shared by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for The Kid With a Bike. The Dardennes are veteran laureates on the Palais stage, having won the Palme d’Or in 1999 for Rosetta and 2005 for L’enfant. The prize for Ceylan, Turkey’s leading auteur, was less expected. His grinding, 2hr.37min. police drama was shown on the final day of the competition, usually a graveyard slot. In pleasure and relief he thanked the Jury for responding to his film:”I thought it would be too tiring for you.”

With films unspooling from 8:30 in the morning to well after midnight, the Festival risks tiring out everyone. But Cannes is always both exhausting and restorative, and we love it. For the world’s cinephiles, it is our Mecca, Lourdes and Disney World rolled into one. As all of tonight’s prize winners said, so do we: Merçi beaucoup, Cannes. And a hopeful à l’année prochaine: same time next year.