In the coming weeks, there will be plenty of chances to gauge the mainstream appetite for Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” the story of God and nature and one mid-century family’s issues among them, which opens in limited urban release this weekend before expanding in the following week to suburban precincts.
But Sunday’s news out of the Cannes Film Festival that the movie had won the Palme d’Or — one of the few festival prizes to draw universal respect — raises a more immediate question: How much will the Croisette honor motivate filmgoers to turn out to see it?
The question of a Palme bump has been an interesting one in recent years. Foreign-language films are their own breed, but among English-language titles, the prize has had a limited but hardly insignificant effect on what we see.
Over the last 20 years, it’s helped set the table for box-office hits such as “Secrets & Lies,” “Fahrenheit 911” and “Pulp Fiction” — at minimum facilitating momentum the movie already had, and in some cases actively putting it on the map. The average filmgoer may not know a Palme d’Or from a palm reader, but he or she is certainly acquainted with the media that respond to one.
On the other hand, the Cannes prize did almost nothing for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” and “Elephant,” both of which failed to break out of an art-house ghetto.
Certainly a host of factors played into all of these results. But the Palme does seem to help movies that contain big, bold premises (including “Secrets & Lies,” about interracial adoption). In that respect, “Tree,” with its visual centerpiece featuring dinosaurs and colliding planets, would fit right in. (It’s also worth noting that two of these three Palme hits were distributed by Harvey Weinstein, though “Tree” distributor Fox Searchlight is no slouch itself.) “Tree” also stars Brad Pitt, who has shown himself capable of motivating a mainstream filmgoer to specialized fare.
At Cannes, several involved in the international distribution of “Tree” shook their head ruefully when the subject of the film’s U.S. fate came up. Romania and France, the thinking went, stood a far better shot of fielding a hit. But of course the odds are always long when you have material as abstract — and as resistant to being boiled down — as this. A Palme just makes those odds a little bit shorter.