Judges at the Cannes film festival, who this year include Jude Law, Uma Thurman and jury president Robert De Niro, will decide on Sunday night which director wins the prestigious Palme d’Or.
But hanging over the jury’s last-minute deliberations on the Riviera is an even bigger question. Will the favourite, Terrence Malick, turn up to receive his honour if he wins?
The director’s long-awaited latest film, The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, is in hot contention for the prize, but Malick, a Texan, is notoriously private and has failed to make a public appearance so far at the festival.
The 67-year old prefers to slip in and out of screenings incognito and wander among the crowd to pick up reaction.
There has been no shortage of eccentric filmmakers here this year. The Dane Lars von Trier was thrown out of the festival for making jokes about being a Nazi at the press conference for his film Melancholia on Wednesday.
But Malick’s brand of odd behaviour has less of the publicity stunt about it and is in keeping with all the strangeness that surrounds his new film.
The Tree of Life, which features a dinosaur as an unlikely co-star to Pitt and Penn, is set in a variety of eras and is an attempt to get at the knotty problem of human existence.
The film was one of the most anticipated of any festival. It was due to have been shown on the Croisette last year, but Malick withdrew it and embarked on some more fine tuning.
His last film as director and writer came five years ago, but his big critical reputation rests primarily on the 1973 film Badlands, starring Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen, and 1978’s Days of Heaven, starring Richard Gere and Brooke Adams.
Reaction to the new film was sharply divided and Pitt promptly went into defensive mode.
“Terry being Terry, there’s a weight it carries,” the actor said. “And this thing has been in incubation for so long. Hype is always dangerous because you could never answer all the expectations.”
Audience applause after the 138-minute premiere lasted just a few minutes, rather than the 10 or 12 minutes’ ovation for the screening of another hotly tipped contender, The Artist.
But some critics were ecstatic about Malick’s film. The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw hailed the arrival of a masterpiece: “Terrence Malick’s mad and magnificent film descends slowly, like some sort of prototypical spaceship: it’s a cosmic-interior epic of vainglorious proportions, a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy, a meditation on memory, and a gasp of horror and awe at the mysterious inevitability of loving, and losing those we love.”
The Observer‘s Jason Solomons preferred The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’s tender tribute to the silent movie era. Speaking from the Croisette as the festival wound down, Solomons conceded that Cannes has been “desperate to give the Palme d’Or to Malick for 30 years now” but he also pointed out two strong latecomers in the race.
One is the Turkish film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and the Paolo Sorrentino film This Must Be the Place, which stars Sean Penn as a bored and wealthy rock star living in Dublin (and which also boasts a cameo from Bono’s daughter, Eve Hewson, and from David Byrne as himself — the title of the film comes from a song by Byrne’s band Talking Heads). Although Malick is believed to have been staying at the exclusive Colombe d’Or hotel in neighbouring St Paul de Vence and was at dinner with his stars the nights before and after the screening, he has still avoided cameras. Pitt valiantly defends his director’s attitude: “It is an odd thing for an artist to sculpt something and then be a salesman. You know how when you have a favourite song and you hear the band telling what it’s about, describing the lyrics, and you’re immediately disappointed and you can’t listen to that song any more.” – guardian.co.uk