US director Terrence Malick’s "The Tree of Life" finally got to Cannes on Monday, where it divided festival-goers with its spectacular visuals but cerebral, religious and very American storyline.
Loud boos clashed with respectful applause at the end of a morning press screening for one of the most highly-anticipated entries at the world’s biggest film festival, which is mid-way through its 11-day run.
"It’s about religion, nature and people — American people," one viewer told AFP on the way out, summing up the coming-of-age tale starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain set in a Texas town in the 1950s.
Malick, 67, skipped a press conference after the screening, leaving producer Sarah Green to explain to frustrated reporters: "Mr. Malick is very shy, but I believe his work speaks for him."
"The Tree of Life" is among 20 films vying for the top prize of the Palme d’Or. It had been on track to screen in Cannes last year, but was pulled back at the last minute for more work by Malick and his four producers, one of whom is Pitt.
Billed as a "thought-provoking film experience" in its production notes, and many years in the making, "The Tree of Life" is only the fifth work from the enigmatic director of "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line."
Pitt plays the crew-cut father of three boys — no daughters in this family — who apart from an argument is never seen talking to his wife, portrayed by Chastain as a gentle saint-like mother.
"I was a little hesitant about playing the oppressive father, but story was so important, and for me it was really about the kids’ journey," said Pitt, 47, who is raising six children with Angelina Jolie.
Penn — who was in Haiti on Monday, working with charities there — appears as the eldest son, a grown-up architect; he and Pitt only share the screen at the end in a seaside family reunion scene.
Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Seridan are the young sons, all of whom look as if they could have been Pitt’s own progeny.
Visually, the 138-minute film is stunning at every turn, including a half-hour of gripping nature imagery at the front end that is married with computer-generated depictions of outer space — plus a couple of dinosaurs which may or may not symbolize a prehistoric father and son.
Trees, solitary or in thick forests, figure prominently in many scenes. So too does the sun — is Malick drawing a link between the sun and the son? — that never fails to be at just the right angle in any given scene.
Pitt’s role is easily the most mature of his career, and on Monday he described working with the "spiritualist" Malick as "a leap of faith, and that’s the point… You know you are in great hands with Terry so it’s not that scary."
"About 10 years ago I started to think about my favorite films," he added. "They weren’t the commercial things; they were the things with a little more depth."
But he reassured hardcore fans that he is not giving up the commercial blockbusters that have made him such a bankable star. "I’m not that highbrow," he said. "Don’t count me out of ‘Mission: Impossible’."