Are Audiences Ready for the Artful and Mysterious ‘The Tree of Life’?

To the film world, “The Tree of Life” almost lived up to the myth it was named after. It was rumored, puzzled over, promised a deep look at life and the world around us, but never seemed to actually turn up. Until at last it premiered at the renowned Cannes Festival in May.

Like many long-awaited suspected masterpieces, its initial showing was met with a smattering of both praise and criticism. Every critic and reporter wanted their view to be heard and be the one that mattered. But the little project that could — could take six years to complete, that is — came out on top and walked away with the prestigious Palme D’Or.

The Palme D’Or is the most sought after award of the festival, but does the prestige travel beyond those bounds into the commercial world? Past examples are a mixed bag, filled both with blockbusters and box office flops alike.

“Pulp Fiction” won the Palme D’Or in 1994 and went on to be a Tarantino classic, one that still draws praise today for its witty and often random dialogue; stellar performances from actors John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Bruce Willis; and unique twist on the everyday gangster film. Although Quentin Tarantino had written and directed other movies prior to “Pulp Fiction,” this film put him on the map with a peg so bright it couldn’t be ignored.

Other movies also found box office and mainstream success after winning the Palme D’Or. “Fahrenheit 9/11” is currently listed as the highest-grossing Palme winner in history. “Apocalypse Now” gets the third spot on that list, also garnering eight Academy Award nominations in 1979 (it took home two awards in Cinematography and Sound).

There are other, lesser successes that many of us still remember. Most of us had never heard of Adrien Brody until he took home the coveted Best Actor Oscar in 2002 for “The Pianist,” a touching Holocaust film that also gave Roman Polanski the award for Best Director. Or perhaps you can think back to “Dancer in the Dark” and Icelandic singer Bjork’s stunning, off-beat performance. The film is anything but mainstream, but does well at tugging on the heartstrings.

Those are all excellent examples of Palme D’Or successes, but don’t get too excited just yet. Do you remember “When Father Was Away on Business,” or did you ever hear about “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”? What about “Underground,” “Rosetta,” or “The Eel”? All of those are Palme D’Or winners that seemed to have lost their shine when the festival doors closed. Those five films together grossed just $2,708,447 at the domestic box office. “Pulp Fiction” took away $107,928,762 all on its own.

So what will the fate of “The Tree of Life” be? With the domestic release occurring on Friday, we won’t have to wait long to find out. Perhaps its hype will carry it through to success, as it has been a very long-awaited film. Perhaps its stars, Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, will be of enough interest to stir people off their couches and into the theater. Or maybe, just maybe, “The Tree of Life” will be one of those real gems that can make a legacy all by itself, a diamond in the rough.

Rob Marcato, “Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction revels in gangster bravado,” The Tech.
“Cannes Film Festival – Palme D’or winners,” Box Office Mojo.
“How will the Palme d’Or affect ‘Tree of Life’s’ commercial prospects,” Los Angeles Times.
“The dubious distinction of Palme d’Or winner,” Orlando Sentinel.