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Brad Pitt's 'Tree of Life' Sets Off Mixed Frenzy of Boos, Applause (Cannes 2011)

Tree of Life
Cannes Film Festival

Director Terrence Malick did not attend the screening; producer Sarah Green calls him “very shy.”

CANNES -- Ending a prolonged waiting game, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life finally made its way to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was met Monday with scattered boos, an initial round of applause and then a growing chorus of appreciative reviews.

The Palais' Lumiere Theatre was packed full of press, who pushed and shoved to secure a seat for the 8:30 a.m. screening that marked the official bow of the movie, which the festival had originally hoped to screen last year only to be told at the time that it was not ready.

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And even before the final credits rolled on the elusive director’s 138-minute meditation on the meaning of life, the rush to judgment began.

With the film’s final, ambiguous image still lingering on the screen, a number of vociferous boos rained down from the balcony, while scattered applause broke out on the floor of the festival’s main theater.

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Life, which Malick has been nurturing for years, defies easy categorization: At its center is the evocative tale of a family in Texas in the '50s: The disappointed, disciplinarian dad is played by Brad Pitt, while Jessica Chastain floats through the movie as the comforting and consoling mom. Sean Penn is seen, relatively briefly, in framing sections as one of their sons, grown up, troubled, and wandering through high rises in Houston.

And then there is also a magisterial detour into a section that recreates the origins of the universe and the creation of planet earth, with a stop along the way for a fleeting glimpse of some dinosaurs.

First reactions came in a rat-a-tat volley of tweets. “Tree of Life just ended, and it’s a very sad and beautiful...wank? The ultimate refutation of narrative? An interminable tone poem?,” tweeted Hollywood Elsewhere columnist Jeffrey Wells. Proclaimed Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, “If the cosmic astronaut god-baby at the end of 2001 could come back to Earth and make a movie? It would pretty much be Tree of Life.”

Amid a cluster of British journalists, one cracked that during the creation scenes, he kept expecting David Attenborough, the face of the BBC’s nature docs, to pop up.

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As if to provide context about Cannes’ often overheated instant reactions, Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone reached back and found a New York Times account of the Cannes debut of Malick’s 1978 Days of Heaven, which sounded eerily prescient: “Its visual power and its photography were generally praised, but absence of a coherent, fully developed story was lamented.”

As more substantive reviews began to issue forth, the tone turned more positive. Calling the movie “mad and magnificent,” the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote,”This film is not for everyone....But this is visionary cinema on an unashamedly huge scale.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy noted that it is an “exceptional and major film” but is “hardly a movie for the masses and will polarize.”

While Cannes tradition demands the auteur-of-the-day show up at an official press conference, Malick opted out of making an appearance at the presser -- and although Malick is in Cannes, there were conflicting reports whether he would walk the red carpet when the film formally screens Monday evening.

In his place, Pitt, Chastain and producers Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad (whose River Road backed the film), Dede Gardner (Pitt’s producing partner) and Grant Hill (who oversaw visuals) stepped forward to explain the film -- or at least to fend off definitive explanations. (Penn, who is on his way to the festival, had not yet arrived in town.)

“Mr. Malick is very shy,” Green said by way of explaining the director’s absence. Pressed to explicate the meanings of the movie, Pohlad suggested, “One of the reasons that Terry maybe shies away from a forum like this [is that] he wants the work to stand on its own. He doesn’t want to say what it’s about.”

Pitt assured the inquisitors, though, that Malick isn’t some mysterious misanthrope.

“He’s quite jovial, he’s incredibly sweet, he’s laughing most of the day, he finds pleasure in the day,” Pitt explained.

The actor testified that for him Malick’s particular way of working has had a lasting effect.

“He’s like a guy standing there with a butterfly net, waiting for that moment to go by,” Pitt said, explaining that the director would show up every morning with fresh notes about a scene, would rarely shoot more than two takes and relied primarily on natural light. Sometimes, after Pitt and Chastain finished a take, Malick would tell the actor playing their youngest son to jump into the scene just to mix it up -- they nicknamed the kid “the Torpedo” and called it “torpedo-ing a scene.”

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Chastain pointed to one moment when a butterfly lands on her hand. It wasn’t scripted or created by CG graphics -- it was just a moment that occurred that Malick managed to capture.

“It’s changed everything I’ve done since,” Pitt said of the lingering effects of working on the movie that was shot three years ago and will finally be released in the United States by Fox Searchlight on May 27.

Although five editors worked on the film, Green said that the movie had an unusually long post-production period by design so that Malick could refine it.

In the end, though, Pohlad said the final shape of the movie, which the filmmakers decided not to take to Cannes last year because it was not yet finished,  “didn’t take a dramatic turn.”