Malick pic takes top prize at Cannes

Leading a strong showing for Americans on the Croisette, “The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick’s epic meditation on childhood and the cosmos, received the Palme d’Or from the jury of the 64th Cannes Film Festival on Sunday night.

Validating one of the more divisive titles at Cannes while likely sealing the film’s near-mythic stature among Malick’s most passionate admirers, the festival’s top honor arrived more than a year after “Tree of Life” was first tipped as a likely contender at the 2010 fest. That possibility vanished after the film was held up by editing delays and the shuttering of original distrib Apparition last year. Pic was subsequently acquired by Fox Searchlight, which will release it Stateside on Friday.

Producer Bill Pohlad accepted the Palme in the absence of Malick at Sunday’s closing ceremony, noting that the helmer “remains notoriously shy.”

” ‘Tree of Life’ was a long road,” Pohlad said, addressing the crowd assembled in the Grand Theatre Lumiere. “About a year ago this time, it seemed even longer. But coming here and having this happen and getting this award tonight has obviously made it all worthwhile.”

In another accolade for an American, Kirsten Dunst drew the actress prize for her performance in Danish provocateur Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia.” Accustomed to stirring controversy, especially at Cannes, von Trier became the talk of the fest after making ill-judged jokes about being a Nazi at his press conference, which spurred the festival to ban the director and declare him “persona non grata.”

While von Trier made a fool of himself and the arrest of ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn further threatened to distract festgoers from matters at hand, controversy-prone thesp Mel Gibson (in attendance with Jodie Foster’s noncompeting entry “The Beaver”) was on his best behavior, even granting Variety an interview on the Croisette.

“What a week it’s been,” Dunst said upon accepting her award. She proceeded to thank the festival for allowing “Melancholia” to remain in competition, as well as von Trier “for giving me the opportunity to be so brave in this film, and so free.”

In response to a question about “Melancholia” at the press conference following the ceremony, juror Olivier Assayas said, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of (von Trier’s) best films. I think we all agree in condemning the press conference, but if you ask me about the film, I love the film. It’s a great work of art.”

Directing honors went to a far less controversial Danish helmer, Nicolas Winding Refn, for “Drive,” his Los Angeles-set, U.S.-produced action-thriller starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. Accepting the honor, Refn called Gosling “my favorite alter ego” and also delivered rather cryptic thanks to provocative Gallic helmer Gaspar Noe “for the head-smashing,” presumably a nod to “Drive’s” scenes of graphic violence.

Overall, the list of winners was roundly praised by the press corps watching the ceremony at the Palais des Festivals. “Tree of Life” was arguably the most controversial pick, drawing boos and applause much as it did at its press screening early last week.

But there were sustained cheers for De Niro and Co.’s choices, particularly the decision to split the Grand Prix (essentially Cannes’ runner-up prize) between two Croisette veterans: Turkish helmer Nuri Bilge Ceylan for his contemplative police procedural “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” and Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for their realist drama “The Kid With a Bike” (acquired for the U.S. by Sundance Selects).

The Dardennes have won the Palme d’Or twice before, for 1999′s “Rosetta” and 2005′s “L’enfant.” With their Grand Prix for “Bike,” the Dardennes maintain an enviable winning streak at Cannes, having received an award every time they’ve competed: “The Son” (2002) received an acting award for Olivier Gourmet, and their previous pic, “Lorna’s Silence” (2008), took a screenplay nod.

Ceylan previously won the Grand Prix for 2002′s “Distant” and the director award for 2008′s “Three Monkeys.” Noting that his 157-minute drama was one of the last competition titles to screen, Ceylan thanked the jury for selecting his “long and very difficult film … I thought it would be too tiring for you.”

In addition to the widespread love for U.S. fare, it was a good night for French celebrities: Jean Dujardin received the actor prize for his silent performance in “The Artist,” while Gallic helmer-actress Maiwenn won the jury prize for “Polisse,” her ensemble comedy-drama about a Parisian cop squad devoted to solving child-abuse crimes.

Maiwenn was visibly overwhelmed during her acceptance speech, which she delivered in a state of near-hyperventilation. By contrast, Dujardin charmed the crowd, doing an impromptu softshoe dance before accepting his award for “The Artist,” a black-and-white pre-talkies pastiche. The Weinstein Co. pickup, which reteams the thesp with “OSS 117″ helmer Michel Hazanavicius, was a last-minute addition to the competition.

Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar received the screenplay honors for Sony Classics’ “Footnote,” a sharp-witted look at the rivalry between two Talmudic scholars who happen to be father and son.

Despite early rumors of a heavily divided jury, it was clear from the post-ceremony press conference that De Niro had weighted his fellow jurors’ opinions equally.

“We had a great president who was a listening president and was a democratic president,” said juror Linn Ullmann, eliciting laughter from the assembled journos, who could remember years in which the president had exerted a stronger hand on the outcome.

De Niro said “Tree of Life” had won the Palme because it was the top pick for the majority of the jury.

“Most of us felt very clearly that it was the movie — the size, the importance, the tension, whatever you want to call it — that seemed to fit the Palme d’Or,” he said. “It’s very difficult to make these decisions because there are other movies that were great also. Most of us felt that the movie was terrific.”

De Niro was in good spirits during the ceremony, even gamely speaking French at the podium, though festival hostess Melanie Laurent delicately corrected him after he accidentally referred to his jury companions as his “champignons” (the French word for “mushrooms”).

The Camera d’Or, awarded to the best first feature in any section of the festival, went to Argentinian helmer Pablo Giorgelli for his road movie “Las acacias.” Presided over by Korean helmer Bong Joon-ho, the Camera d’Or jury opted for the Critics’ Week entry over such higher-profile debuts as Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty” and Markus Schleinzer’s “Michael” in competition and Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” in Un Certain Regard.

Noticeably shut out on Sunday was Finnish helmer Aki Kaurismaki’s droll comedy “Le Havre,” which was one of the best-received films in competition and won the Fipresci international critics’ prize over the weekend.

Another longtime Palme bridesmaid, Spain’s Pedro Almodovar, went away without an official prize for his Antonio Banderas-starring thriller “The Skin I Live In.” The Sony Classics pic did receive the Prix Vulcain technical award for d.p. Jose Luis Alcaine, specifically for his lighting.

A Prix Vulcain special mention was awarded to composer Joe Bini and editor Paul Davies for their work on Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which drew mixed but passionate response early on in the fest.

While it didn’t receive any official competition prizes, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s “This Must Be the Place,” an English-language drama starring Sean Penn as an aging rock star, did score top honors from the ecumenical jury.

In other awards, the Un Certain Regard jury, headed by Emir Kusturica, split its top prize between South Korean helmer Kim Ki-duk’s “Arirang” and German director Andreas Dresen’s “Stopped on Track.” Russian auteur Andrei Zvyagintsev’s closing-night entry “Elena” took the Un Certain Regard special jury prize.

Iran’s Mohammad Rasoulof, currently appealing a seven-year prison sentence, drew the Un Certain Regard directing laurels for “Good Bye.” Pic was one of two selections by persecuted Iranian helmers at Cannes, the other being Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not a Film,” which received a special screening.

The Critics’ Week Grand Prix was awarded to Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

The big winner in Directors’ Fortnight was Belgian director Bouli Lanners’ coming-of-ager “The Giants,” which was honored by both the CICAE Intl. Confederation of Art Cinemas and the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers. Austrian helmer Karl Markovics’ “Breathing” took the Europa Cinemas Label for best European film in the sidebar.

Palme d’Or: “The Tree of Life” (Terrence Malick, U.S.)

Grand Prix (tie): ”Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) and ”The Kid With a Bike” (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, France)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn (”Drive,” U.S.)

Jury prize: ”Polisse” (Maiwenn, France)

Actor: Jean Dujardin (“The Artist,” France)

Actress: Kirsten Dunst (“Melancholia,” Denmark-Sweden-France-Germany)

Screenplay: Joseph Cedar (“Footnote,” Israel)

UN CERTAIN REGARD JURY AWARDS

Main prize (tie): “Arirang” (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea) and “Stopped on Track” (Andreas Dresen, Germany)

Special jury prize: “Elena” (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia)

Directing prize: Mohammad Rasoulof (“Goodbye,” Iran)

OTHER MAIN JURY AWARDS

Camera d’Or: “Las acacias” (Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina-Spain)

Critics’ Week Grand Prix: “Take Shelter” (Jeff Nichols, U.S.)

SHORT FILMS JURY PRIZES

Palme d’Or: “Cross” (Maryna Vroda)

Jury prize: “Swimsuit 46″ (Wannes Destoop)

FIPRESCI AWARDS

Competition: “Le Havre” (Aki Kaurismaki, Finland-France)

Un Certain Regard: “The Minister” (Pierre Schoeller, France)

Directors’ Fortnight: “Take Shelter” (Jeff Nichols, U.S.)

CINEFONDATION

First Prize: “Der Brief” (Doroteya Droumeva)

Second Prize: “Drari” (Kamal Lazraq)

Third Prize: “Fly by Night” (Son Tae-gyum)

ECUMENICAL PRIZE: “This Must Be the Place” (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy-France-Ireland)

PRIX VULCAIN TECHNICAL AWARDS

Winner: Jose Luis Alcaine (“The Skin I Live In,” Spain)

Special mention: Joe Bini and Paul Davies (“We Need to Talk About Kevin,” U.K.-U.S.)

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