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The Tree of Life Debuts at Cannes to Boos and Swoons

At 8:30 a.m. this morning, seemingly every person in Cannes was ready to punch every other person in Cannes (seriously, we heard a lady scream, "I'm getting punched!") in order to grab a coveted seat for the debut screening of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, the famously private and anti-prolific director's fifth film in 38 years and his first since 2005's The New World. The Tree of Life was shot three years ago and was originally supposed to premiere at last year's Cannes Film Festival, but Malick and the producers deemed it not ready. And since the start of this year's festival, it has been the one movie that simply everyone here has felt an urgent need to see.

As the credits rolled during this morning's screening (which we missed despite waiting in line for an hour and jumping three barricades), the reaction was a mixture of both boos and applause. At the much-less-frenzied second screening at 3 p.m., only applause could be heard, though there were plenty of walkouts mid-movie. And by the time the movie had its gala premiere at 7:30 p.m., attended by stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain — along with Angelina Jolie, Gwen Stefani, Gavin Rossdale, Rob Lowe, and the other people we've been seeing around Cannes all week — the actors got a standing ovation from the minute they walked in the theater.

Malick, who was a no-show at his own movie's press conference earlier in the day (according to French television announcers, this is only the second time ever that a director has skipped his own press conference), was still nowhere to be seen. "Mr. Malick is very shy," producer Sarah Green had explained earlier. "To him, the most sincere gesture he can make is to let the audience experience the movie without comment. One of the reasons that Terry maybe shies away from a forum like this [is that] he wants the work to stand on its own. He doesn't want to say what it's about."

Having spent a couple of hours in the abstract, nonlinear world of this movie, we'll try: The film does have a narrative arc, following the eldest of three boys (played as an adult by Sean Penn) as he loses his sense of innocence and tries to figure out if he will become a bitter realist like his father (Brad Pitt) — a veritable weed willing to choke other plants to survive — or sweetly unambitious like his mother (Jessica Chastain), the embodiment of grace and love. And yet, the scope of its purview is no smaller than all of creation. Malick intertwines minor moments of this family of three boys in a Texas backyard with a stunningly comprehensive trip through the birth of life, on every macro and micro level, from the cosmic to the cellular, with a brief visit to some dinosaurs along the way. (Douglas Trumbull, who did the photographic effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey, helped put the sequence together — and it shows.) There's almost no dialogue; instead, Malick favors visual representation of emotion and whispered narration from several of the characters about the role of God in fate and the struggle to be good in this life.

All day, various people warned us not to see the movie. It's long and it's boring, they said, reminding us that its distributors are rumored to have nearly pulled out several times. And no doubt between now and the time the movie is released on May 27 there will be other people warning you not to waste your time. Those people are wrong. This is a film that actually manages to be about all of life: the triumphs, the tragedies, the tiniest moments, the mistakes that define us and therefore must be embraced. Leaving the theater today, we felt compelled to pause and look around, marveling at the choices and happenstance — both good and bad over 30 years — that had led us to the incredible luck of being here in Cannes, standing on the steps of the Palais, exiting a Terrence Malick movie. Point well made, Mr. Malick. Point well made.

Related: Thirty-Three Years of Principal Filming: Everything in Terrence Malick’s career has built toward The Tree of Life [NY Mag]

Photo: Fox Searchlight