Nicolas Winding Refn, left, chosen best director for "Drive,"… (Patricia Williams / For…)
Reporting from Cannes, France — — Writer-director Terrence Malick wasn't there to accept it, but "The Tree of Life," his ambitious and long-anticipated examination of what it all means, won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or on Sunday night.
"He remains infamously and notoriously shy and humble," said producer William Pohlad, who accepted the festival's top award on Malick's behalf with producer Dede Gardner. "But he is very happy to get this." The film opens in the U.S. on Friday.
It was a strong night for Americans and American-influenced films in general.
Kirsten Dunst won best actress for Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" even though the director had been declared persona non grata by the festival for claiming to be a Nazi at a press conference.
"What a week it's been," said Dunst (who plays a troubled bride whose marriage is overshadowed by the coming end of the world) with relief after accepting. She thanked the festival "for allowing the film to stay in competition" as well as the director "for allowing me to be so brave and so free."
The best-director winner, Denmark's Nicolas Winding Refn, won for the neo-noir "Drive," set in Los Angeles and starring Ryan Gosling as an emotionless wheelman who lives to drive — movie stunts by day, robberies by night — and makes a rare stab at human connection with fetching neighbor Carey Mulligan.
The confident Refn thanked the jury "for your good taste in giving me the prize," thanked his mother, "who my whole life said I was a genius," and finally emotionally thanked his wife, Liv, saying, "You are the real prize, this is just make-believe. If it wasn't for you I wouldn't be alive."
The jury split the grand jury prize, considered the festival's runner-up award, between two of the competition's critical favorites, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes' "The Kid With a Bike" from Belgium and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia," from Turkey.
Ceylan, who has won two previous Cannes prizes and whose austere two-hour, 37-minute examination of an all-night police investigation screened at the end of the festival, seemed surprised at the recognition. "Thank you for selecting my long and difficult movie one more time," he said to the festival, then candidly told the jury, "Screening it on the last day, I thought it would be too tiring for you."
Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist," a silent movie about the coming of sound that brought its French director and stars to Los Angeles to shoot and became the most joyous and universally popular film at the festival, settled for the best actor prize for irresistible star Jean Dujardin.
The actor bowed at the feet of jury president Robert DeNiro and then broke out in a joyous soft-shoe dance routine. Another French winner was director Maiwenn, whose "Polisse," a French police drama that many Americans felt played like unsuccessful U.S. TV, took the jury prize.
A more poignant American connection came when Israeli director Joseph Cedar captured the screenplay award for his "Footnote," a serious farce about competing Talmudic scholars that has significant issues on its mind. Cedar dedicated his award to Don Krim, the independent distribution pioneer and head of Kino International who was his first American distributor. Krim died Friday.
Though ignored by the jury, "Le Havre" happily won the FIPRESCI or International Critics' Prize for the main competition. It's a delightful return to deadpan form by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, who used his bleak humor and impeccable sense of the absurd to tell the story of how a shoeshine man befriends a young illegal immigrant.
One more American film did well at Cannes: Jeff Nichols' brooding indie drama "Take Shelter," which debuted at Sundance. It took both the grand prize for the Critic's Week competition and the FIPRESCI award for the same section.
Though it was a bit overlooked by critics because of its out-of-competition status, one of the most involving films at the festival was Xavier Durringer's "The Conquest," a crisp adult drama that examines a crucial five years in the life of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, detailing how he simultaneously gained the office of his dreams and lost the love of a former wife and key advisor.
"The Conquest" smartly explores its thesis that politics is "a stupid job done by smart people."
If one evening at Cannes could be held out as a highlight, it had to be the night when the enormously popular Jean-Paul Belmondo, the French actor of his generation, received a special Palme d'Or before a screening of a new documentary about his life called "Belmondo, Itinéraire."
As the enormously popular 78-year-old actor, who suffered a stroke in 2001, walked slowly to the stage of the Debussy theater, leaning on his companion, Barbara Gandolfi, the audience erupted into huge waves of rhythmic applause. The still-spirited performer flashed his trademark genial smile, placed his hand over his heart and said "a big thank you," which made the crowd truly explode. They love film here in Cannes, they really do.