CANNES, France (Reuters) - The long wait for U.S. director Terrence Malick's return to the screen ended Monday with a mix of loud applause and jeers, as his drama "The Tree of Life" appeared to split critics at the Cannes film festival.
The drama starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn tells the story of a southern U.S. family in the 1950s against a backdrop of majestic cinematography, a sweeping musical score, scenery both pastoral and otherworldly, and huge star power.
At the end of the movie, in competition for a Palme d'Or prize for best picture and widely considered the most highly anticipated film to be presented at Cannes in years, a blend of loud applause and equally passionate jeers could be heard.
But there were no doubters among Cannes' fans, who shrieked with delight when Pitt, flanked by wife Angelina Jolie and Sean Penn, walked up the famous red-carpeted staircase to the main festival venue wearing a tuxedo and sunglasses.
And while early reviews of "The Tree of Life" have been mixed, its all-star Hollywood cast has injected a powerful dose of buzz to the Riviera festival after a glum 2010 show.
Much discussed was the absence of Terrence Malick himself on the red-carpet or the traditional post-screening news conference, which cast and friends attributed to shyness.
"He is shy, he's just very shy," said French director Luc Besson. "He's not far from here."
"MAGNIFICENT" vs "PRETENTIOUS"
Pitt plays a stern father of three boys in a proper middle class town who is intent on drilling discipline and toughness into his sons -- even as his faith in the material world erodes and he loses his factory job.
"The father is the provider and in the film here you see that the American dream, as we grew up to understand it, is not working," said Pitt, who also produced the movie, at a news conference after the screening.
At a festival that places the limelight firmly on directors, Malick's absence drew many questions.
"He wants to focus on the making of and not the selling of the real estate," Pitt said of Malick. "It is an odd thing for an artist to sculpt something and then be a salesman."
In Malick's film, characters are placed on an equal plane with the natural world as the camera dwells at length on elemental scenes like yawning canyons, erupting volcanoes, explosions on the surface of the sun and primordial forests inhabited by tranquil dinosaurs.
While some critics were taken in -- Peter Bradshaw at the Britain's Guardian daily called it "magnificent," while Variety's Justin Chang said it was "extraordinary" -- others were put off, branding it "pretentious" or "self-absorbed."
Malick, who has only made five feature films, famously took 20 years between making his second picture "Days of Heaven" in 1978 and third "The Thin Red Line" in 1998, which won him Oscar nominations for writing and directing.
Secrecy surrounding "The Tree of Life," and Malick's aversion to publicity have given it an almost mythical status among cinephiles, with trailers giving little away.
A version of the film was reportedly withdrawn at the last minute from Cannes, despite being ready, for further editing.
"I wouldn't say there is a huge difference between where we were then and where we are now," said producer Bill Pohlad. "There was no radical change, more a process of refinement."
"The Tree of Life" has an atypical structure, reaching back to the age of dinosaurs in a long opening sequence without dialogue, before jumping into the future to introduce Sean Penn as a grown-up version of Pitt's son.
"The structure is unlike anything you've seen before, it's quite complex," said Pitt. "This film is not going to take the normal gestation period."
Some industry insiders who know the 67-year-old Malick said he had been mulling over the ideas in the movie for nearly 40 years, since the start of his directorial career in 1973 with the release of the acclaimed crime drama "Badlands."
"Terry had been collecting footage for decades, since 'Badlands'," Jack Fisk, the director's longtime production designer and collaborator, told the LA Times. "Things like eclipses and other natural wonders, just for this film."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)