- Associated Press - Sunday, May 22, 2011

CANNES, FRANCE (AP) - 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.

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.

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