It was Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life that took the Palme d'Or in Cannes on Sunday night. The film, which stars Brad Pitt, asks the big questions about life, and they were answered by the jury, headed by Robert De Niro, who disagreed with those critics that incredulously booed the film when it first screened last week.
The famously retiring director was not in the room to pick up the prize, leaving the honour to his producer Bill Pohan who stated: "I have big boots to fill. Terrence is too shy to come here tonight, but I spoke to him earlier and he showed great elation and was very honoured."
For my money, the jury did not make one bad choice in its deliberations. The best films picked up the top prizes and the strongest performances won the acting prizes, although CÚcile De France who starred in The Kid with a Bike and Ryan Gosling for Drive may only have lost out because it is a Cannes tradition that no film receives more than a single prize. Gosling will have his day next February at the Oscars.
The Tree of Life is Malick's best film, and quite simply an astonishing work. It starts with the news that the son of Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Pitt and Jessica Chastain) has died at war. What follows is a remarkable treatise on life, creation and the self. It's a filmmaking masterclass.
Jumping to the present day (where Sean Penn plays Jack, a surviving son) Malick presents the metropolis with the same verve and reverence that previous films have reserved for nature. It's clear from all of his previous work that the spirit is a big part of his life, but his respect for man, or more accurately the power of nature and survival of the fittest, is here superbly incorporated.
The film looks at one of the most difficult questions anyone can ask: why are we here? Rather than try to come up with an answer, Malick shows the process that many people go through in thinking through these questions. It's incredibly ambitious, showing stars exploding, geological transformations and even dinosaurs, and deserves all the plaudits it gets.
Giving Malick a close run was Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, with his superb film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Showing on the final day of the festival, it is a homage of sorts to the Westerns of Sergio Leone. It opens with a murderer trying to help police find a body buried in the steppes of Anatolia. The magnificent film, like the best Westerns, investigates the relationship between the men, and, of course, nothing is quite as it seems. The action takes place over one day and ends with the autopsy of the victim. It's a mysterious film and one that deserves multiple viewing. Ceylan joked: "I don't think it is important for everyone to understand everything."
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia shared the festival's second highest honour, the Grand Prix, with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid with a Bike. The brothers have won the Palme d'Or twice before and in their new film the directors have employed De France in a leading role. It's unusual because the directors are famous for working with only non-professional actors, and when I chatted with De France on a hotel rooftop, the Belgian star told me: "I was amazed when they called me, as of course I looked at the works of the brothers and was sad that there was no chance that I could work with them."
The Kid with a Bike is about a child who is abandoned by his father. He befriends a hairdresser played by De France who takes him under her wing and agrees to be his guardian. The boy insists on finding his father and gets into plenty of trouble in this coming-of-age drama.
Of course, after Lars von Trier was declared persona non grata for his misconceived joke at a press conference about being a Nazi, there was debate about whether his film Melancholia, about the end of the world, should be kicked out of the competition. Luckily for Kirsten Dunst, it wasn't. She now joins Charlotte Gainsbourg and Bj÷rk in the ranks of those who have appeared in films created by the Danish director who have gone on to pick up Best Actress awards at Cannes.
With incredible understatement, the actress said when picking up the award: "What a week it has been. Thank you so much for the jury and it's an honour, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Thanks, Lars, for giving me the opportunity of being so brave."
When she mentioned the Danish director's name, there were audible cheers from the audience at the ceremony, which was presented by Melanie Laurent.
The evening started off hilariously, with Robert De Niro flubbing his lines - although, he deserves credit for trying to deliver his opening address in French. The best moment came when he spoke of his "champignons" in the jury before correcting that to "companions". Of course, it was all in jest, but no doubt this year's jury will henceforth be known as Robert De Niro and his mushrooms.
Heavily tipped French actor Jean Dujardin picked up the award for Best Actor for his turn in The Artist. It was a performance of note, as the film is a dialogue-less movie about a silent movie star whose career is derailed by the coming of the talkies. Dujardin broke his silence when he picked up the award, thanking his co-star and wife in what was a popular win.
By far the most amazing acceptance speech, however, came from French director and actress Ma´wenn Le Besco, who was gasping for breath and almost in tears when she won the Jury Prize. Her excellent film about the child protection unit in France reflects the actress's verve and bravado. It has numerous characters and is as much about the office politics of the protagonists as it is about investigating terrible crimes against children.
Joseph Cedar deservedly won the Best Screenplay prize for Footnote. The drama set among academics in a university revolves around the moral dilemma that is created when a father is awarded a major prize, when it was intended for his son.
When the official selection was announced it created a buzz, after the lacklustre edition last year. In the event, the festival more than lived up to its billing, with not only great films but also great stories. The market was buoyant for the first time in years, although it was the bigger star vehicles from Hollywood that most benefited, while the smaller independent films continue to struggle.
This year's edition was also the year that the recent investment in film from the Middle East began to bear fruit. The last two films in competition were both about the Arab world; the Ceylan award-winner and the Moroccan-set fairy tale The Source by the Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu, which starred Hiam Abbass and Hafsia Herzi. The Source was a film aiming to address women's politics in the Islamic world.
The Middle East filmmakers Nadine Labaki and Leila Kilani both made impressions. Labaki's film Where Do We Go Now? was particularly strong. There was also a large number of deals being done on the market involving the region.
Cannes 2011 will perhaps be remembered most for the directors who were absent from final night, however: Terrence Malick and Lars von Trier.