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The Tree of Life wins the Palme d’Or

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Will the Cannes win for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life boost its box office and awards season chances?

Despite being the most eagerly awaited film at this year’s festival, it divided critical opinion after screening last Monday and tonight’s win was, for some pundits, something of a surprise.

Can a film as bold and out there as Malick’s film is reported to be, really click with modern upscale audiences?

Some might pour cold water on the idea of this film being an Oscar contender and an arthouse hit, as it seems to take the usual ingredients of Malick’s films and takes them to new levels of sheer Malickness.

Take this paragraph from Todd McCarthy’s review of the film for the Hollywood Reporter:

“Brandishing an ambition it’s likely no film, including this one, could entirely fulfil, The Tree of Life is nonetheless a singular work, an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind’s place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amid its narrative imprecisions. This fifth feature in Terrence Malick’s eccentric four-decade career is a beauteous creation that ponders the imponderables, asks the questions that religious and thoughtful people have posed for millennia and provokes expansive philosophical musings along with intense personal introspection”

Somehow I don’t think this quote is going on the poster.

Let’s also not forget the very existence of this film in 2011 is something of a miracle.

Malick apparently approached Bill Pohlad, the head of production company River Road, several years ago with the basic idea for the project.

Filming began in 2008 and over the course of three years Malick shot and refined the film which features an extended sequence showing the birth of human existence (!); a family in 1950s Texas (starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain); and present day scenes of a man (Sean Penn) reflecting on his childhood.

Over the course of the last four years, the distribution company set up by Pohlad and Bob Berney (the now ironically named Apparition) came and went, whilst the film’s release was delayed from 2009 until 2010, when some expected it to play at that year’s Cannes festival.

A few months after that didn’t happen, Fox Searchlight eventually stepped in as US distributor, there were rumoured grumblings from exhibition folk that the film was too esoteric, and UK distributor Icon got in to a fight with international sales agent Summit over the release date (which means the UK opening is currently in limbo).

When the film was finally unveiled at Cannes last week, the divided responses were perhaps predictable, but the feverish anticipation before it screened and the added kick of a Palme d’Or win might actually say something powerful about the state of cinema in 2011.

In the same weekend that a movie based on a fairground ride dominates the global box office, could there be actually be an upscale hunger for a maverick auteur like Terrence Malick?

Fox Searchlight are past masters at releasing awards season bait (even if they only have one Best Picture win) but

At the moment, it seems like Win Win and The Descendants would be their most likely shots at Oscar glory.

Could it be that this upscale movie breaks out of the die-hard cineaste realm to become a respectable arthouse success?

Not only is there the unusualness of the project (I can’t think of anything remotely similar in recent memory), but also the selling point of its reclusive, poet-genius director.

I’m sure he has sincere reasons for doing zero press, but whether intentional or not, it just stokes the aura surrounding his already legendary status to levels that must leave PR professionals gasping in awe.

Could it be possible that the unusual and ‘uncommercial’ qualities of The Tree of Life and its director become a strength rather than a weakness?

> Official site and Tumblr
> Terrence Malick at Wikipedia
> Reviews of The Tree of Life from Cannes 2011

Written by Ambrose Heron

May 23rd, 2011 at 5:02 am