Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' debuted Monday to dramatically mixed reactions at the Cannes Film Fest, with some calling it "a wank" while others praised it as "magnificent." The film, which stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, was met with both boos and a round of applause at a packed press screening.

"It's a very sad and beautiful...wank? The ultimate refutation of narrative? An interminable tone poem?" tweeted Hollywood Elsewhere columnist Jeffrey Wells.

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir tweeted, "If the cosmic astronaut god-baby at the end of '2001' could come back to Earth and make a movie? It would pretty much be 'Tree of Life.'"

Those responses are almost identical to the reclusive director's film 'Days of Heaven,' when it debuted at Cannes in 1978, with The New York Times printing, "Its visual power and its photography were generally praised, but absence of a coherent, fully developed story was lamented."

Malick's slowly paced war meditation 'The Thin Red Line' met with similar reviews in 1998, but went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

The film seemed to improve after some reflection, as later reviews were more positive. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw called it "mad and magnificent ... visionary cinema on an unashamedly huge scale," but conceded, "this film is not for everyone."

The Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy said it's an "exceptional and major film" but thought it "hardly a movie for the masses and will polarize."

Although the famously reclusive director was at the festival, he skipped both the press conference and press screening for his first film since 'The New World' in 2005. He might yet show on the red carpet for tonight's formal screening.

It was left to star Brad Pitt and the film's producers to explain the film and the filmmaker. "He's quite jovial, he's incredibly sweet, he's laughing most of the day, he finds pleasure in the day," Pitt claimed.

Co-star Jessica Chastain mentioned a scene when a butterfly lands on her hand as an example of the real-life moments the director likes to capture.

"He's like a guy standing there with a butterfly net, waiting for that moment to go by," Pitt said, adding that the director usually shot no more than two takes and relied primarily on natural light. "It's changed everything I've done since," Pitt stated. The film was shot three years ago and will finally be released in the U.S. on May 27.

Producer Sarah Green explained Malick's absence: "One of the reasons that Terry maybe shies away from a forum like this [is that] he wants the work to stand on its own. He doesn't want to say what it's about."

What do you think? Are you dying to see this or planning to skip it?

[The Hollywood Reporter]
categories Movies, Festivals