In The Tree, the new film by director Julie Bertucelli ( Since Otar Left), a giant fig tree beside a house serves as a dominating symbol about death and a family's struggle to move on. Adapted from a best-seller by Judy Pascoe, entitled Our Father Who Art in a Tree, the film is essentially a fable about a child's desire to hold on to the past, though told as an adult film.
The titular tree, a wide-branched evergreen known as a Moreton Bay Fig, sits next to a house on stilts in the Australian countryside, where Peter, Dawn and their four kids live. Shortly after the movie starts though, Peter, while driving his truck, suffers a fatal heart attack and crashes into the tree's trunk.
His widow, Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) spirals into grief, barely able to take care of her children, two adolescent boys, an eight-year-old girl and a baby boy. Gainsbourg, with her long, changeable face, is always watchable; her performance here is a more naturalistic version of her Cannes award-winning performance in Lars von Trier's Antichrist.
In many ways, though, she's not the real star here. The father's death has a particularly strong effect on the willful eight-year-old Simone, played by the excellent child actress, Morgana Davies. Simone comes to believe that her father's spirit now lives in the tree. She climbs up into its branches, where she happily communes with her late father. Dawn, too, begins to share the comforting notion that her husband still looks over their home, and sleeps outdoors under its leaves.
Weeks and months slip by midst images of rural vistas, and eventually the family members begin to move on. The oldest son, Tim, goes back at school and takes a part-time job. Dawn, an outsider from Anglo-French background (like Gainsbourg herself) begins to adapt to her new life. She even gets a job as a bookkeeper for a scruffily handsome plumber, George (Marton Csokas). There's an attraction between the couple, though Simone resists the new intruder in the family. When George decides to remove some of the tree's invasive roots, she sees it as a direct attack on her father.
There are moments when the camera pans over the Australian landscape when The Tree occupies an interesting territory, somewhere between the mundane and the mystical. Progressively, though, it begins to slide into something less refined - more like horror movie lite. The tree, acting as an extension of Simone's rebellion, acts up: Branches groan, frogs pop up in the toilet bowl and a bat flutters into the house. By the time we reach the climactic ending, the script clearly calls for an exorcist with a chainsaw to trim back this metaphor run amok.
- Written and directed by Julie Bertucelli
- Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Morgana Davies
- Classification: NA