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Cannes 2011: How did the reaction to Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' get so complicated?

May 17, 2011 |  1:15 am


Perhaps it was inevitable, after all the hype about the movie's brilliance and Oscar potential, that "The Tree of Life" ended up where it has: in a place where it still got a decent enough Cannes reception but hardly a stellar or flawless one.

Or perhaps it was just one more strange turn for a movie that was slated to be here a year ago, before its eccentric director continued a tweaking process that had already gone on for years.

In case you haven't been following, the much-anticipated "The Tree of Life"  premiered to a mixed response from the tuxedoed set on the Croisette Monday night. According to the standard by which many Cannes films are measured, it didn't fly that well. The post-screening clapping lasted just a few minutes -- as opposed to the 10 or 12 minutes that's the mark of an unequivocally well-received Cannes screening (as there was for silent film "The Artist" the night before). Whatever the final verdict on the film, there was a bit of a deflated feeling in the room, owing in part, probably, to the way it had been inflated in the first place.

Not helping in all of this (apart from the 2-hour, 18-minute running time and grandiose imagery that seemed to make some restless) was the absence of Malick himself. Sometimes when a director stays out of sight it can add to the mystery. Sometimes it can do the opposite, making it seem as if he or she is indifferent to public reaction. And sometimes it just seems weird. It was probably a little of the second and a lot of the third that obtained Monday night.

Malick had actually come to this beach town a few days ago and in fact went to dinner both on a previous night and the night of the screening after the movie ended. But he doesn't like crowds or the spotlight, according to several who know him, so he stayed away from the Palais des Festivals during the film's premiere. (A Fox Searchlight spokesman later said that he did come in to the room after the movie screened while the audience was applauding, but covertly.)

Star Brad Pitt and romantic partner Angelina Jolie took a dramatic walk toward each other on the red carpet, epitomizing the kind of glitz this film festival does best. But inside the theater, the mood was cool after the helmer decided to stay away.

Malick's invisibility meant that the ceremonial post-screening bow in front of the crowd -- an oddly important ritual that can reinforce and even offer a window into a film's appeal -- did not happen. Instead, a camera that normally spotlights the filmmaker showed an empty chair presumably reserved for Malick. It was as though something awful had happened to him, even though almost everyone in the theater believed he was just fine, walking somewhere, incognito, on the streets outside the theater (or inside the theater, amid the crowd, as it happened).

All this comes after an earlier screening for media on Monday, when some boos greeted the final scenes before giving way to a generally hearty applause.

Of course, festival reaction is hardly an accurate predictor of commercial success, no matter how warm or cold. The movie will face its true box-office test when Fox Searchlight rolls it out in the U.S. on May 27, while other distributors release in other countries around the same time (though look for ongoing drama in Britain, where a battle over the release date has resulted in legal action involving the distributor and currently no release date in the country).

As for the larger state of Malick ... in the cycle of film-festival receptions, it feels like we're somewhere between the backlash and the backlash to the backlash. The relentless hype of this movie as a transcendental masterpiece really couldn't continue, but until the movie opens, we won't quite be at the point yet when Malick defenders come out to argue their case.

It's hard not to think, when all is said and done, that a number of cinephiles will hail this as a masterpiece, while the masses, at least in the U.S., may need a little more convincing. As for Malick himself, whatever anonymous Cannes street he's currently taking all this in on -- or, perhaps, just pleasantly observing a flock of seagulls -- it's hard not to imagine him wondering how we got to this place, where his movie failed to meet expectations he didn't mean to put on it.


Cannes 2011: What Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is actually about (yes, we finally see it)

Cannes 2011: Brad Pitt and The Tree of Life gang explain his process, defend his absence

Cannes 2011: Finally, the end of secrets on Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Brad Pitt on the red carpet at the premiere of "The Tree of Life." Credit: Christian Hartmann / AFP/Getty Images