Terrence Malick's epic drama has taken the top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
Fiona Williams in Cannes

23 May 2011 - 10:20 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Terrence Malick's long-awaited epic exploration of the universal experience of loss, The Tree of Life, has been awarded the Palme d'Or of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped up in the south of France overnight.

Its non-linear exploration of spirituality has divided many critics, but the Grand Jury, presided over by Robert de Niro, were won over by its bold vision.

Malick's film was the firm favourite coming into the event, before a single reel was unspooled at the Grand Lumiere Theatre in the Palais des Festivals. The Tree of Life was originally expected to premiere at last year's festival but, owing to Malick's notorious, meticulous nature, was held back for this year, for yet more of its considerable 'tweaking'.

It's unlikely that the reclusive director was present at the festival's closing ceremony, but if he was, he didn't take to the stage to accept the Palme d'Or for best film; that honour was left to two of the film's producers, Dede Gardner (the film's star Brad Pitt's co-producing partner) and Bill Pohlard, who accepted on Malick's behalf.

This year's directing prize went to Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn, for his first American film, Drive, which stars Ryan Gosling as a pop music-loving Hollywood stunt driver who leads a double life as a getaway car driver-for-hire. Post-awards, the director and his star joked about making a series of sequels to the film, in the vein of the ever-multiplying Fast & The Furious franchise, but added that they intend to work together again next year, on the strength of their successful collaboration for Drive. (Winding Refn came on board the film at Gosling's urging.)

On the local front, there was no joy for the Australian contenders for the top prizes, as Competition film Sleeping Beauty (director Julia Leigh), Un Certain Regard contender Toomelah (Ivan Sen), and Competition short film Bear (Nash Edgerton), were all overlooked in the final judging for their categories.

Audience favourite Jean Dujardin tap danced to the stage to accept his award for best actor for his charismatic role in Miachel Hazanavicius' black and white extravaganza, The Artist, and Kirsten Dunst was a surprise winner for her role as a nervous bride in controversial Dane Lars Von Trier's epic end of the world melodrama, Melancholia. Dunst thanked the director “for giving me the opportunity to be so brave in this film,” and alluded to the dramatic fallout from Von Trier's inflammatory comments at the film's press conference which resulted in him being deemed persona non grata.

“Thank you so much. Wow – what a week it's been,” Dunst said, adding: “This is an honour that's once in a lifetime. Thank you to the Cannes Film Festival for allowing the film to still be in Competition.” Dunst also thanked “persona non grata” Von Trier: “I want to thank Lars for giving me the opportunity to be so brave in this film. It's such a special night for me.”

The full list of award winners is as follows:

Palme d'Or: The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, US)

Grand Prix (tie): Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) and The Kid With
a Bike
(Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne, France)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, US)

Jury prize: Polisse (Maiwenn, France)

Actor: Jean Dujardin (The Artist, France)

Actress: Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia, Denmark-Sweden-France-Germany)

Screenplay: Joseph Cedar (Footnote, Israel)

Camera d'Or: Las acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina-Spain)

Palme d'Or, short films: Cross (MarynaVroda)