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Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, and Brad Pitt are shown in a scene from The Tree of Life. (Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight/Associated Press)

Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, has won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

The trophy was accepted by two of the movie's producers as the reclusive Malick skipped all public events at the festival. Malick previously won the directing prize in 1979 for Days of Heaven on his last trip to Cannes.

"I know he would be thrilled with this," said producer Bill Pohlad, accepting the prize.

"He just very sincerely wants the work to speak for itself," added Pohlad backstage to reporters.

Set in 1950s Texas, The Tree of Life centres on a boy's journey from innocence to disenchantment of life in his adult years. The film also stars Sean Penn as the adult.

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Nicolas Winding Refn accepts the prize for directing Drive during the awards ceremony at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes on Sunday. ((Francois Mori/ Associated Press))

However, Denmark's Nicholas Winding Refn nabbed the director's prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his movie Drive, starring Canadian Ryan Gosling.

Trophies for the annual French festival were handed out Sunday evening.

Drive concerns a Hollywood stunt driver by day who moonlights as a top-notch getaway driver-for-hire in the criminal underworld.

The second prize, the Grand Prix, for best film was split between Once a Upon a Time in Anatolia by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Le Gamin au vélo (The Kid With a Bike) by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

Kirsten Dunst won best actress for her role in Melancholia, directed by Denmark's Lars Von Trier, who courted controversy this year after joking he was a Nazi and Hitler sympathizer. He was then thrown out of the festival.

The 55-year-old film maker, a winner of the top Palme d'Or award in 2000 for Dancer in the Dark has been banned from coming within 100 metres of the festival site and was forbidden to attend the closing ceremonies.

"It's an honour that is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for an actress," said Dunst, who thanked festival organizers for permitting the film to remain in competition after von Trier's remarks.

"I want to thank Lars for giving me the opportunity to be so brave."

France's Jean Dujardin captured best actor for his portrayal of a silent movie star in The Artist.

The screenplay prize went to Israel's Joseph Cedar for Hearat Shulayim (Footnote). Cedar also directed the movie about a rivalry between a father and son.

Other winners included Cross by Aryna Vroda (France) for best short film.

The chair of this year's jury was Robert de Niro, who won a best actor Palme d'Or in Cannes in 1976 for his breakthrough role in Taxi Driver.

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi  was supposed to sit on the jury as well but the Iranian government has barred him from leaving his homeland.

With files from The Associated Press