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Highlights from the 2011 Cannes Film Festival encompass the entire history of the universe

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The Tree of Life

Every Cannes Film Festival develops its own narrative, but this year’s lineup presented a truly epic philosophical showdown between two of the world’s most revered auteurs, each of whom audaciously married the personal and the cosmic. In this corner: Terrence Malick, whose long-awaited The Tree of Life refracts the filmmaker’s memories of growing up in the 1950s via grandiose imagery depicting the birth of the universe. In the opposite corner, wearing the black trunks: Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, who imagines the extinction of all life everywhere in Melancholia, unmistakably an allegory for his own recent battle with severe depression.

In the end, you have to call it a draw. Malick’s film ultimately won the Palme d’Or (the festival’s top prize), and for my money is the greater achievement—indeed, for about an hour, as it whizzed impressionistically across time and space, I was convinced I was watching one of the greatest movies ever made. (Once it settles down and becomes a battle of wills between Brad Pitt’s disciplinarian dad and the family’s eldest son, some of the magic ebbs away.) But von Trier instantly became Cannes ’11’s big talking point when he confessed, during his press conference, that he sympathized with Hitler “a little bit” and then jokingly declared himself a Nazi. The furor (Führer?) over these idiotic but hardly anti-Semitic remarks moved festival brass to announce that von Trier was now “persona non grata,” though that didn’t stop the jury from awarding its Best Actress prize to Melancholia’s Kirsten Dunst, as a depressive who finds no joy on her wedding day but suddenly blossoms when she realizes the world is about to end.

With such weighty contenders in this year’s Competition lineup, it may seem perverse to prefer an expert pastiche of ’80s action flicks, but Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive served up more gasp-worthy, indelible moments than any other film I saw. Ryan Gosling steps into the laconic existentialist shoes previously worn by Alain Delon in Le Samouraï and Ryan O’Neal in The Driver, thereby allowing Albert Brooks, cast brilliantly against type as a villain, to steal numerous scenes. Carey Mulligan, as the love interest, and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, as Gosling’s boss and only friend, also do terrific work. But Drive’s true star is Winding Refn (Bronson, the Pusher trilogy), who’s at last found a worthy vehicle for his juxtaposition of extreme violence and tenderness, and also brilliantly combines the feel of ’70s outlaw cinema with the look/sound of ’80s action kitsch. He deservedly took home the Best Director prize.

An even stronger genre effort, mysteriously relegated to the Un Certain Regard sidebar, was Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala, which riffs on the true story of a beauty-pageant contestant who gets involved with a Mexican drug kingpin; Naranjo shoots this poor young woman’s ordeal in a series of astonishingly choreographed single takes that visually encapsulate her lack of options. Un Certain Regard also showcased the single best film I saw at Cannes this year, omitted from Competition perhaps because it had premiered at Sundance back in January: Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) plays the mentally fractured title character, whose two years in a cult, under the thumb of a charismatic psycho played by recent Oscar nominee John Hawkes, are arguably less harrowing than the immediate aftermath of her escape, as she holes up with family members who have no idea where she’s been.

Not every film was a triumph, of course. Lynne Ramsay made a much-anticipated return to the director’s chair, nine long years after Morvern Callar, with her adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin; after a dizzyingly subjective opening half-hour or so, the movie, about a mother (Tilda Swinton) whose son commits a Columbine-style atrocity, turns into a disappointingly shallow portrait of the kid as Evil Incarnate. Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, with Antonio Banderas as a demented surgeon, is all crazy plot, no emotional subtext. I enjoyed the Dardenne brothers’ latest, The Kid With a Bike, but it felt a bit too similar to their previous films, especially Rosetta; most folks swooned for The Artist, a French-made tribute to silent cinema (its star, Jean Dujardin, won Best Actor), but I lost interest as it slowly metamorphosed from Singin’ in the Rain to the umpteenth iteration of A Star Is Born. And let’s not even discuss Kim Ki-duk’s Arirang, which somehow won the top prize in Un Certain Regard despite consisting of literally nothing but Kim whining about “director’s block.”

Still, even these relative disappointments seem meaningless when viewed from the God’s-eye perspective offered by Malick and von Trier. Doomsayers insist that cinema is on its last legs, but it’s tough to count out a medium that can encompass 13.7 billion years—from the instant of the universe’s creation to the last gasp of sentient life—within a single festival.

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