The Tree (2010)

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Tree, gather up my thoughts like the clouds in your branches. Draw up my soul like the waters in your root.

In the arteries of your trunk bring me together. Through your leaves, breathe out the sky.

Breath – Daniel Beaudry

Based on the 2002 novel ‘Our Father Who Art In The Tree‘, by Judy Pascoe, The Tree is an optimistic meditation on grief and spirituality, as seen through the eyes of a mourning family. Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Peter (Aden Young) are happily married and living in a stilt-house in Boonah, a remote town in Queensland, Australia. They live with their four children, Charlie (Gabriel Gotting), Simone (Morgana Davies), Lou (Tom Russell) and Tim (Christian Byers), but one day, after returning from business, Peter suffers a heart attack, and crashes his car into the trunk of the giant Moreton Bay Fig tree which sits outside their house. He seemed like a kind and compassionate man; a dedicated father and husband, and despite the paucity with which his character is etched (he passes away eight minutes in) we feel the toll of the family’s loss. The film drifts, naturalistically, through the process of grief then encountered by Dawn and the kids, who struggle to adjust to their new life. Soon Simone becomes convinced that the spirit of her father lives on in the tree, and she begins to talk with him. Dawn also shares this whimsical belief (although to her I believe it is whimsy, and a way of easing the pain, whereas Simone truly believes the tree to hold her father’s spirit), but soon grounds herself by getting a book-keeping job with local sales/handyman George (Marton Csokas), who she also begins falling in love with.

You may be wondering why I quoted the Daniel Beaudry poem above; it’s for the simple reason that the film called to mind images which the author had previously created – images of life pulsating beneath damp soil, flowing through splintering veins and flowering to glory in muscular branches and delicate leaves, whistling in the wind. “Breathe out the sky” is the line which hits me hardest; the idea that breath is carried from the center of the earth, through the rambling roots of the trees and finally exhales out into the universe from its green tip. It’s an image which would lend itself well to Bertuccelli’s film (her second, after 2003’s Since Otar Left), which also denies itself formal structure. Indeed, it may be better watched as something of a tone poem; unfolded by verse.

Gainsbourg is on commanding form here, channeling grief in a way that only she can. Her softly-spoken portrayal (her voice is the definition of ‘ethereal’) of a woman’s despair is incredibly affecting, and honest. She never strains for the heartstrings, and I find her incapable of a false note. Her presence here could potentially lift The Tree way above average. Sadly, average is exactly what it ends up being, thanks in no large part to the constant annoyance that is Simone.

The novel unfurls from Simone’s eyes, detailing her grief and the discovery that she can speak to her father through the tree, and the film – while not shot from her perspective – certainly focuses on her more than the other characters. This means that she needs to be sympathetic, but I just ended up feeling deeply antagonized by her increasingly obstinate and selfish behavior; I understand that she’s eight, and experiencing great emotional turmoil, but that’s quite different to just acting like a brat and avoiding empathy like it were some sort of disease. Dawn tries talking with her, maturely, about both her relationship with George and her feelings for Peter, but Simone just doesn’t listen, responding to every interaction with “NO!” or “Never.” This means that when the emotional set-pieces arrive (there are two: the threatened chopping of the tree, and a violent storm) we don’t care about her or her actions; when she positions herself in the tree, determined to save it, we just grow tired of such stubborn behavior. Maybe this portrayal is realistic, but it certainly doesn’t work in the films favour.

The ending is also a significant problem, as it lacks genuine emotional weight. This is a spoiler by the way, so if you haven’t seen the film it’s probably best to skip to the end of the review. The storm, predictably, destroys the family house, and unearths the tree. After Dawn has fought to hard to protect her family, and Simone so hard for the tree, their decision to just drive away, to the sound of The Cinematic Orchestra’s ‘To Build A Home’ (a cloying choice), seems a little insincere, and not in tune with the rest of the film. The destruction is meant to signify a new beginning, but the film’s final note of goodwill feels fake.

Still, the film is not entirely without interest. It’s beautifully shot by DP Nigel Bluck, and Gainsbourg secures points just for turning up, but this journey isn’t as rewarding as it could have been.

Director: Julie Bertuccelli
Stars:Charlotte Gainsbourg, Morgana Davies, Marton Csokas
Runtime: 100 min
Country: France, Australia, Germany, Italy

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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