Cannes Winners: 'Tree of Life' Takes the Palme d’Or

Cannes Film Festival

Other winners include Kirsten Dunst, best actress for “Melancholia,” and Nicolas Winding Refn, best director for “Drive.”

After a tight race, Robert De Niro’s jury planted Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in Festival de Cannes history by awarding it the coveted Palme d’Or at a closing ceremony Sunday night.

Malick took his time to finish the highly anticipated project, which the festival had originally hope to screen last year, but it proved worth the wait when Tree was crowned victorious among the solid titles in this year’s lineup. A meditation on topics ranging from family life to the creation of the universe, the film starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain will be released Friday stateside in exclusive engagements by Fox Searchlight.

The elusive, press-shy Malick was not on hand at the Palais ceremony, so the award was accepted by producers Dede Gardner and Bill Pohlad. Later, at the closing-night dinner, Pohlad explained that Malick was back home in Austin. “He’s very excited. He’s thrilled,” the producer said. “He’s a good guy and just likes to be private; no insults to anybody. That’s his way.”

De Niro and his jury -- Jude Law, Uma Thurman, Martina Gusman, Nansun Shi, Linn Ullmann, Olivier Assayas, Mahamat Saleh Haroun and Johnnie To -- were all on the stage for the announcement that Tree had won Cannes' golden ticket.

“We’re extremely happy. We had wonderful films and a wonderful jury,” Thurman said on her way into the theater before the ceremony.

“It was a great experience,” De Niro said in French before announcing the prizes. “I hope that it’s OK."

Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn was named best director for his automotive thriller Drive. The director thanked a list of people he’d written on his iPhone, including star Ryan Gosling, who stayed in Cannes to attend the ceremony. The modern-day film noir is set for a U.S. release in September through new distributor FilmDistrict.

Kirsten Dunst was named best actress for her performance in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia as a depressed woman whose wedding is overshadowed by the approaching end of the world. The film, which will be released stateside by Magnolia, was in danger of being eclipsed by the controversy that erupted when von Trier jokingly boasted of being a Nazi during a press conference and then was declared persona non grata by the festival.

“Thank you so much. Wow -- what a week it’s been,” Dunst said. “This is an honor that’s once in a lifetime. Thank you to the Cannes Film Festival for allowing the film to still be in Competition.” Dunst also thanked von Trier:  “I want to thank Lars for giving me the opportunity to be so brave in this film. It’s such a special night for me.”

French actor Jean Dujardin made himself heard among the jury though he doesn't speak a word in Michel HazaniviciusThe Artist, earning himself the prize for best actor. Artist was originally set to screen Out of Competition but was added to the race at the last minute. Catherine Deneuve presented the award to Dujardin, who received a standing ovation for his role in the blackj-and-white silent film. It was picked up by the Weinstein Co., which will release Artist in the U.S. as a potential awards contender later this year.  “I want to share this prize with Berenice Bejo,” Dujardin said of his leading lady onscreen before adding, “and thank you to my wife [actress Alexandra Lamy], who I love."

French director Maiwenn’s ensemble drama Polisse earned the Jury Prize. The film has been sold to Sundance Selects stateside. The director-actress gave a tearful and moving acceptance speech thanking her cast, crew and family before the large ensemble cast from the police drama joined her onstage for a photo.

The Grand Prix was shared by two-time Palme d'Or winners the Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, for their latest festival entry The Kid With a Bike -- another Sundance Selects acquisition -- and Nuri Bilge Ceylan for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the title with the longest running time in the fest.

Screenwriting honors went to Joseph Cedar for his father-son drama Footnote, which Sony Pictures Classics acquired for North America and Latin America.

The Camera d’Or for best first film went to Pablo Giorgelli's Las Acacias, which screened in the Critics' Week sidebar.

French actress Melanie Laurent presided over the ceremony that aired live and unencrypted on French pay TV network Canal Plus.

The ceremony preceded the world premiere of The Beloved, Christophe Honore’s musical romp through time starring Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Milos Forman, Louis Garrel and Ludivine Sagnier. VIP guests then headed to an official dinner at the Agora hosted by the fest, followed by a soiree at the Majestic beach.

The complete list of Cannes 2011 winners:

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-Luc and Pierre 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)

Camera d'Or: Las acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina-Spain)

Palme d'Or, short films: Cross (Maryna Vroda)