Terrence Malick's long-awaited return splits Cannes

By Mike Collett-White and Nick Vinocur

The drama featuring U.S. actors Brad Pitt and Sean Penn tells the story of a southern American family in the 1950s against a backdrop of majestic cinematography, a sweeping musical score, scenery both pastoral and otherworldly, and huge star power.

At the end of the film, in competition for a Palme d'Or prize for best picture and widely considered the most anticipated movie to be presented at Cannes in years, a blend of loud applause and equally passionate jeers could be heard.

Pitt plays a stern father of three boys in a proper middle class town who is intent on drilling discipline and toughness into his sons -- even as his faith in the material world erodes and he loses his factory job.

"The father is the provider and in the film here you see that the American dream, as we grew up to understand it, is not working," said Pitt, who also produced the movie, at a news conference after the screening.

The notoriously press-shy Malick did not appear at the news conference, a rare and unusual choice at a festival that places the limelight firmly on the director, prompting the actors to defend his decision.

"He wants to focus on the making of and not the selling of the real estate," Pitt said of Malick, who often wrote parts of the film's script on the day of the shooting. "It is an odd thing for an artist to sculpt something and then be a salesman."

In Malick's film, characters are placed on an equal plane with the natural world as the camera dwells at length on elemental scenes like yawning canyons, erupting volcanoes, explosions on the surface of the sun and primordial forests inhabited by tranquil dinosaurs.

"It's all about catching an accident," Pitt added, referring to the many scenes of nature.


The picture has been the most talked about of the 20 entries in the main Cannes competition, and its world premiere brings stars of the stature of Pitt and Penn to the famous red carpet in the palm-lined Riviera resort.

It also marks the halfway point of this year's festival, where many critics have complained that the glitz and glamour has yet to be matched by the overall quality of the films in competition.

Cannes organizers appear to have received that hoped-for lift in the competition from Malick -- who famously took 20 years between making his second picture "Days of Heaven" in 1978 and third "The Thin Red Line" in 1998.

That movie, which also starred Penn, won him Oscar nominations for writing and directing. Despite his thin output Malick remains among the most respected living U.S. film-makers.

Secrecy surrounding The Tree of Life, and Malick's aversion to the kind of publicity most film-makers crave, have given it an almost mythical status among cinephiles, with trailers and an official synopsis that have given little away.

The movie, which was first conceived at least five years ago after Malick had completed his fourth film "The New World" starring Colin Farrell, was reportedly ready to be shown last year but withdrawn at the last minute for more editing.

"I wouldn't say there is a huge difference between where we were then and where we are now," said Bill Pohlad, one of the film's producers. "There were no radical changes, more of a process of refinement."

"The Tree of Life" has an atypical structure, reaching back in time to the dinosaur in a long sequence without dialogue at the start of the film, before leaping into the future with Sean Penn as a grown-up version of Pitt's son.

"The structure is unlike anything you've seen before, it's quite complex," said Pitt. "This film is not going to take the normal gestation period."

Some industry insiders who know the 67-year-old Malick said he had been mulling over the ideas in the movie for nearly 40 years, since the start of his directorial career in 1973 with the release of the acclaimed crime drama "Badlands."

"Terry had been collecting footage for decades, since 'Badlands'," Jack Fisk, the director's longtime production designer and collaborator, told the LA Times. "Things like eclipses and other natural wonders, just for this film."

Pitt and Penn will follow Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Woody Allen and Owen Wilson up the red carpet at this year's film festival, where the A-listers are back after a few relatively star-light years.