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Tattoos are pictured on the left arm of actress Angelina Jolie as she arrives with cast member Brad Pitt on the red carpet for the screening of the film "The Tree of Life", by director Terrence Malick, in competition at the 64th Cannes Film Festival, May 16, 2011. (JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER/REUTERS)
Tattoos are pictured on the left arm of actress Angelina Jolie as she arrives with cast member Brad Pitt on the red carpet for the screening of the film "The Tree of Life", by director Terrence Malick, in competition at the 64th Cannes Film Festival, May 16, 2011. (JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER/REUTERS)

Win calms The Tree of Life's box office jitters Add to ...

The Tree of Life, American director Terrence Malick's meditation on death in a family, the birth of the cosmos and the struggle between Nature and Grace, took the top prize at the 64th Cannes International Film Festival Sunday.

Though the film, decades in gestation and three years in editing, came into the festival a favourite, by the end it was no sure thing, with strong disagreements among critics as to the unconventional film's merits. The announcement of the film's win earned both boos and cheers from the press in the Salle Debussy, who watched the closing ceremonies on a live feed from the adjacent, Grand Lumière auditorium.

Industry insiders here suggested that, without a Palme to validate Malick's challenging film, The Tree of Life could have faced an uncertain box office. Producer Bill Pohlad, who accepted the award on Malick's behalf, acknowledged the win was a huge relief.

"I just spoke with him [Malick]earlier today and of course he remains infamously and notoriously shy and low-profile and quiet and humble. But I know he is thrilled with this award. It's been a long road. A year ago at this time it seemed an even longer road but tonight, that's changed."

The director, who has created only five feature films over a 40-year career, is among the most revered of American auteurs, and the Palme win both helps the film and keeps the Cannes prize relevant to American distributors.

In a press conference following the awards, jury president Robert De Niro said "Most of us felt the movie had the size, the importance, the tension, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize. It just had it... Most of us felt the movie was terrific."

The Tree of Life benefited from some splits on the jury, as indicated by the unusual choice to pick two runner-up Grand Jury winners, with prizes going both to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's, The Kid with a Bike, and the Turkish entry, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

Malick's return to the screen was nearly overshadowed by controversy around Danish director Lars von Trier's Melancholia, a film that also explored one family's problems against the background of cosmological events. Von Trier's inflammatory remarks, expressing sympathy for Nazis, got him banned from the festival, though the film stayed in contention.

When Kirsten Dunst accepted her best actress award for Melancholia, she thanked "the festival for allowing our film to still be in competition."

De Niro said that the jury had said that Melancholia was judged on its own merits: "If it had been decided by the majority of people, then that would have been the film that would have been chosen [for the Palme]"

French director, Olivier Assayas, added, "As far as I'm concerned, it's one of the best films. I think it's a great film. I think we all agree in [the festival]condemning the press conference, but Melancholia had great acting, and was a beautiful, very accomplished work of art."

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