Stars like Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, and Salma Hayek brought glamour and drama to the fest

By Dave Karger and Anthony Breznican
Updated May 20, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

We’ve all seen kids play kick-the-can, but this year Cannes played kick-the-kid, as harrowing dramas about the dangerous lives of children created a stir at the world’s biggest film festival. The trend was led by Brad Pitt’s role as a merciless father of three in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Tilda Swinton’s acclaimed turn as the mother of a sociopathic high school killer in We Need to Talk About Kevin. ”It’s a bloody business having a family,” Swinton, the real-life mother of twins, told reporters. ”It’s certainly a very bloody business being a parent, and it’s a really bloody business being a child.”

She had a lot of support for that thesis at the festival (which runs from May 11 to 22): Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s French-language The Kid With a Bike follows an abandoned young boy lashing out at the world, and the shocking Austrian drama Michael explores the horrific relationship between an abused, captive child and his kidnapper. And then there was Australian director Julia Leigh’s erotic Sleeping Beauty, starring Sucker Punch‘s Emily Browning as a young prostitute who services men while drugged and unconscious. ”I see her…as a nihilist. She’s just letting things happen to her,” Browning said. ”She’s willingly putting herself in danger.”

The highly anticipated Tree of Life — which was slated to premiere at the festival last year, but wasn’t finished in time — ended with boos and counter-applause as critics clashed over the merits of the elegiac, impressionistic drama. The elusive Malick stayed under the radar — slipping into the screening at the very end. ”He’s just terribly uncomfortable with all the personal focus,” Pitt told EW. ”He’s not designed for it. His hair was sticking out in the back. I started fixing it and he went, ‘No, man, it’s beautiful.”’ Pitt (in town with Angelina Jolie and their six kids) dominated the spotlight in Malick’s place, talking candidly about the challenges of portraying the tough taskmaster. ”Here’s a guy who feels oppressed by his job and his surroundings,” the actor explained. ”And the nature of oppression is you pass that on, so he takes it out on his kids. It’s a real trap. I am painfully aware that my actions speak loudly to my kids. I don’t want them to be encumbered with my s—. I want them to be free.”

Gus Van Sant’s Restless explores the budding romance between two lost kids, a death-obsessed teen (Dennis Hopper’s son, Henry Hopper) and a girl fighting terminal cancer (Alice in Wonderland‘s Mia Wasikowska). Despite its tearjerker tendencies, the film also features lots of dark humor, though Van Sant felt festivalgoers were in an especially grim mood this year. ”The audience was so quiet,” he said after the premiere. ”Only Henry and Henry’s mom were laughing. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is not going over.’ But then the applause was like, ‘Okay, it wasn’t as bad as I thought!”’

There were a few glimpses of frivolity amid the darkness — from Woody Allen’s charmingly nostalgic Midnight in Paris, which opened the festival, to the unlikely breakout hit The Artist, to Johnny Depp’s popcorn blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which sailed in to great commotion. ”Is [Pirates] your normal Cannes fare? No, I wouldn’t say that,” said Depp, who playfully thumbed his nose at the notoriously harsh reviewers of the Croisette. ”I’ve always feared the critics. They really scare me,” he deadpanned. ”And that’s why we’ve come to Cannes.”

The Artist: The Festival’s Biggest Hit

The happiest surprise of the festival was a crowd-pleasing film starring two French actors you’ve probably never heard of. But trust us: You’re going to love it. On paper, The Artist — starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo — sounds like box office poison: a black-and-white silent film set in the 1920s. But this tale of a dashing silent-movie actor trying to survive in Hollywood after the advent of ”talkies” quickly became the must-see movie of the festival. The Weinstein Co. intends to release it in the fall, which could bode well for its Oscar chances, given the Academy’s love for feel-good showbiz nostalgia. In the meantime, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius isn’t getting carried away by the critical praise. ”When they don’t like something [at Cannes], they hate it. And when something is good, they love it,” he says. ”Let’s go back to real life and we’ll see what happens.”