- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2011

CANNES, FRANCE (AP) - Even winning one of the world’s top cinema prizes, the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or, wasn’t enough to coax notorious reclusive American director Terrence Malick out of hiding.

“The Tree of Life,” Malick’s hypnotic film about life on the cosmic and nuclear family scales, was the most anticipated movie of the prestigious French Riviera showcase, where stars, industry insiders, journalists and cinema lovers converge for 12 days each May.

Malick, though, was a no-show at the 64th edition of the festival, sending his producers to receive the Palme d’Or on his behalf.

“Why isn’t he here? I’m not saying it’s an easy question to answer, he is personally a very humble guy and a very shy guy,” one of Malick’s envoys, Bill Pohlad, said at the festival’s closing news conference on Sunday night. “A lot of people … (see) this kind behavior as a bit of an act, but it’s not that way with Terry. He sincerely wants the work to speak for itself.”

The story of three young boys growing up in Texas in the 1950s, starring Brad Pitt and newcomer Jessica Chastain as the boys’ parents, “The Tree of Life” also includes long, breathtaking sequences of the creation of the universe and the time of the dinosaurs.

Though it got a mixed reception at the festival’s press screenings _ with some booing vociferously as others clapped and cheered _ the movie won over the jury, headed this year by American actor Robert De Niro. Malick, who has made just five films over his decades-long career, had won the festival’s directing prize, but never the Palme d’Or.

The jury, which also included actors Uma Thurman and Jude Law, awarded the U.S’ Kirsten Dunst the best actress award for her role as a depressive bride in Danish bad-boy Lars von Trier’s end-of-the-world drama “Melancholia.” Von Trier himself got thrown out of the festival over comments he made at a news conference suggesting he sympathized with Adolf Hitler.

Von Trier apologized for the rambling remarks, but festival organizers expelled him and he was not on hand for Sunday’s closing ceremony. It was the controversial Dane’s second film in a row to take Cannes’ best actress award, after Charlotte Gainsbourg won the 2009 prize for her gut-wrenching role as a mother who loses her child in “Antichrist.”

Gifted French comic Jean Dujardin claimed the best actor award for his role in the festival’s most critically adored film, “The Actor,” a riveting fable about a silent film star struggling to transition to talkies. Shot in black-and-white, “The Actor” is itself a silent film.

“I said to myself, it’s incredibly bold and audacious … in the era of `Avatar’” and other ultrahigh tech movies, Dujardin said.

The festival’s second-place grand prize was shared by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, two-time winners of the Palme d’Or, for their troubled-youth drama “The Kid With a Bike,” and Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan for his meditative saga about investigators’ all night search for a body, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.”

After a lackluster festival last year, this year’s lineup was so packed with top names and quality films that several critical favorites left without a prize.

Spanish maestro Pedro Almodovar _ another Cannes regular who, like Malick, had never won the Palme d’Or _ left empty-handed in spite of critics’ positive response to his enthralling terror flick “The Skin I Live In.”

The movie marked the return of early Almodovar muse Antonio Banderas, who starred in several of the Madrid-based director’s movies in the 1980s before decamping to Hollywood. “The Skin I Live In,” in which Banderas plays a psychotic plastic surgeon, was their first collaboration in 22 years.

Banderas was also in town to promote the animated “Shrek” spinoff “Puss in Boots,” in which he has the title voice role as the tiny cat with the big personality. He and co-star Salma Hayek posed on top of a giant pair of boots aboard a boat docked in Cannes, as hundreds of photographers snapped away.

Angelina Jolie and Jack Black also hammed it up for festival photographers to promote their animated sequel “Kung Fu Panda 2.”

Other big names to walk the red carpet at Cannes this year included Owen Wilson _ star of festival opener “Midnight in Paris,” by Woody Allen _ Sean Penn, in town for his roles in “The Tree of Life,” as well as Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s “This Must Be the Place.” In it, Penn plays a washed-up rock star in racoon eyeliner and ruby red lipstick.

Other top A-listers from outside the film industry also descended on the French Riviera in droves. Kanye West, Gwen Stefani, Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld and assorted top models including Naomi Campbell, Karolina Kurkova and Anja Rubik _ wearing a pair of diamond encrusted stilettos _ were on hand to bask in the festival flashbulbs.

Jane Fonda was everywhere, from the red carpet to the parties to the catwalk, where she modeled a second-skin evening gown to raise money for Japan. She sported a beaded leopard-print number to the annual amfAR AIDS charity gala, where it seems that everyone was either famous, rich or thin _ and often all three at once. The 18th annual dinner, held last week at the exclusive seaside Hotel du Cap resort, raised more than $10 million for AIDS research.

With A-listers here en masse throughout the nearly two-week-long festival, movie buffs and celebrity hunters also turned out in massive numbers to the high-wattage nightly screenings, where even the photographers are required to sport sharp tuxedos.

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