CANNES, France (Reuters) - U.S. director Terrence Malick brings his eagerly anticipated drama "The Tree of Life" to the Cannes film festival on Monday, ending a long wait for movie fans and critics intrigued by only his fifth feature.
The picture has been the most talked about of the 20 entries in the main Cannes competition, and its world premiere brings stars of the stature of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn to the famous red carpet in the palm-lined Riviera resort.
It also marks the halfway point of this year's festival, where many critics argue that the glitz and glamour has yet to be matched by the overall quality of the competition films.
They are hoping for a lift from Malick, who famously took 20 years between making his second picture "Days of Heaven" in 1978 and third "The Thin Red Line" in 1998.
That movie, also starring Penn, won him his only Oscar nominations for writing and directing, although he is among the most respected U.S. film makers active today.
Secrecy surrounding The Tree of Life, and Malick's aversion to the kind of publicity most film makers crave, have given it an almost mythical status among cinephiles, and trailers and the official synopsis give little away.
The synopsis calls The Tree of Life an "impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950s."
It follows Jack, played by Penn, as he navigates his childhood and disillusioned adult years and seeks answers to the big questions of life.
A short trailer features mysterious cosmic images, suggesting the narrative will go beyond everyday experience.
"Through Malick's signature imagery, we see how both brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only our lives as individuals and families, but all life," the synopsis reads.
The movie was first conceived at least five years ago, after Malick had completed his fourth film "The New World" starring Colin Farrell.
Some industry insiders who know the 67-year-old said he had been mulling the ideas in the movie for nearly 40 years, since the start of his directorial career in 1973 with the release of the acclaimed crime drama "Badlands."
"Terry had been collecting footage for decades, since 'Badlands'," Jack Fisk, the director's longtime production designer and collaborator, told the LA Times. "Things like eclipses and other natural wonders, just for this film."
Pitt and Penn will follow Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Woody Allen and Owen Wilson up the red carpet at this year's film festival, where the A-listers are back after a few relatively star-light years.
Big studios have paid up for a splashy and costly launch of their blockbusters in a bid to grab the attention of the 4,000 journalists from around the world covering the festival.
"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and "Kung Fu Panda 2," both in 3D, were in town, to the delight of noisy crowds of fans who queued patiently for a glimpse of their idols walking into the Grand Theater Lumiere on the Cannes waterfront.
All Cannes needs now, say critics, is a handful of quality competition movies, ideally including Malick's.