Terrence Malick’s 'Tree of Life' wins top Cannes fest honor

Actress Kirsten Dunst poses with the Best Actress award for the film Melancholia during the awards ceremony at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

Actress Kirsten Dunst poses with the Best Actress award for the film Melancholia during the awards ceremony at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

CANNES, France — American director Terrence Malick’s expansive drama “The Tree of Life” won the top honor at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday, while Kirsten Dunst took the best-actress prize for the apocalyptic saga “Melancholia.”

The Palme d’Or prize was accepted Sunday by two “Tree of Life” producers, Dede Gardner and Bill Pohlad, for the notoriously press-shy Malick, who has skipped all public events at the glamorous Cannes festival.

“I know he would be thrilled with this,” Pohlad said.

“Why isn’t he here? I’m not saying it’s an easy question to answer, but he personally is a very humble guy and a very shy guy,” Pohlad said after the awards ceremony. “He just very sincerely wants the work to speak for itself.”

Gardner said when it came to the prospect of Cannes prizes, Malick had been “very sweet. He said, ‘If we were that lucky, I’d like to thank my wife Becky and my parents.’”

“The Tree of Life,” which opens Friday in the United States, stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain in a far-flung story of family life that plays out against a cosmic backdrop, including glorious visuals of the creation of the universe and the era of dinosaurs.

Dunst won for her role in the end-of-the-world tale “Melancholia,” whose director, Denmark’s Lars von Trier, was banned from the festival after sympathetic remarks for Adolf Hitler at a movie press conference.

“Wow, what a week it’s been,” said Dunst, who plays a deeply depressed woman coping with her family’s foibles as a rogue planet bears down on a possible collision course with Earth.

“It’s an honor that is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for an actress,” said Dunst, who thanked festival organizers for allowing “Melancholia” to remain in the competition after von Trier’s Nazi remarks and offered warm words for her director. “I want to thank Lars for giving me the opportunity to be so brave.”

Von Trier was not allowed to attend Sunday’s ceremony.

Actor Jean Dujardin accepts the award for Best Actor for the film The Artist during the awards ceremony at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Actor Jean Dujardin accepts the award for Best Actor for the film The Artist during the awards ceremony at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Jean Dujardin claimed the best-actor prize for the silent film “The Artist,” in which he plays a 1920s Hollywood star whose career crumbles as talking pictures become the norm. In keeping with his singing, hoofing character, Dujardin did a little tap dance as he took to the Cannes stage.

Dujardin said he wanted to share his prize with co-star Berenice Bejo, who stood up and blew kisses at him on stage. The film was directed by Bejo’s husband, French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, who also directed Dujardin in the “OSS 117” spy spoofs.

“I hope to make other silent films with you,” Dujardin told Hazanavicius.

Several well-received films, among them Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s horror thriller “The Skin I Live In” and British filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” went home empty-handed.

Malick, who has made only five films in a nearly 40-year career, previously won the directing prize in 1979 for “Days of Heaven” on his last trip to Cannes. “The Tree of Life” was shot three years ago and festival organizers had hoped to premiere it at Cannes last year, but it was not ready in time.

Prizes were awarded by a nine-member jury headed by Robert De Niro that included actors Uma Thurman and Jude Law.

“The Tree of Life” was the first American film to win top honors at Cannes since back-to-back recipients in 2003 (Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant”) and 2004 (Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11”).

De Niro told reporters choosing the top winner was difficult because of the range and “great qualities” among the 20 competing titles but that “The Tree of Life” ultimately fit the bill.

“It had the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize,” De Niro said. “Most of us felt the movie was terrific.”

The second-place grand prize was shared by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, two-time winners of the Palme d’Or, for their troubled-youth drama “The Kid With a Bike,” and Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan for his meditative saga “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.”

The third-place jury prize went to French actress-turned-director Maiwenn’s child-protection drama “Polisse.”

Despite a so-so reception from critics, von Trier’s “Melancholia” found favor with Cannes jurors.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best films. I think it’s a great film,” said French director Olivier Assayas, a juror.

Von Trier provoked a firestorm at the film’s press conference when he delivered rambling remarks about his German heritage in which he said he understood and sympathized with Hitler.

He also made wisecracks about Jews, comments that brought condemnation from Jewish and Holocaust groups and prompted Cannes organizers to boot him out, an unprecedented punishment for a filmmaker who won the Palme d’Or in 2000 with “Dancer in the Dark.”

Another Danish filmmaker, Nicolas Winding Refn, won the directing award for “Drive,” his action thriller starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver caught up in a heist gone wrong. Refn gushed thanks for Gosling, who producers allowed to choose which director he wanted.

“He really wanted to make the movie and he really wanted to make it with me,” Refn said.

The screenplay award went to Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar for “Footnote,” his tale of rival father and son Talmudic scholars.

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