Tree, The: Julie Bertuccelli’s Tale of Mourning and Recovery

2010 Cannes logo

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2010 (Closing Night)–In her first feature since her exquisite debut “Since Otar Left,” French director Julie Bertuccelli solidifies her reputation as a gifted artist to watch with “The Tree,” a quiet, moody, contemplative story of mourning and recovery, set in the strange and evocative wilds of the Australian outback.
Her first film in English, “The Tree” is a whispery film that lies just beyond our grasp, based on Bertuccelli’s adaptation of Judy Pascoe book, “Our Father Who Art in the Tree.”
One of the film’s strongest qualities is how language becomes secondary to the alternately sturdy, profound and immaculate pictures. The director finds a comfortable groove by relating the story visually, in a series of beautiful, transcendent images that manages the difficult task of being both unsettling and intuitive.
As director, Bertuccelli gives her actors the range and freedom to find the complicated, joyous, sad feelings developing out of their sense of loss and pain.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won the Best Actress in Cannes last year for Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” is again risky and revealing, unafraid to project a quiet, down to earth vulnerability of a woman trying to cope with a family tragedy. Just as impressive, a remarkable eight-year-old named Morgan Davies is sensational as Simone, her whip smart daughter holding tight to family memories.
Set in the Antipodes region marked by a deep horizontal line, open spaces and rolling hills, “The Tree” begins on a lovely, intimate grace note in the shadows.  Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Peter (Aden Young), married for some 15 years and parents of four children, enjoy a tight, easy rapport.
Peter works as a contractor and unusual long hauler, who transports fully intact houses from one rural stretch of the country to another.
Tragedy strikes the family and Dawn is suddenly cast as a young widow who must take care of her family. Dawn’s oldest son, desperate to escape the community and go to Sydney for college, tries to stir his mother out of her depression. “Are we a happy family,” she asks him. “I don’t know,” he replies, then adding, “Happy families are boring.” The youngest child, a three-year old boy, is mute. As Dawn drifts through a waking nightmare, dazed, even comatose, the children, quick, independent, imaginative, help initiate the healing process.
Bertuccelli’s script is sharp and knowing about the easy banter, competitiveness and disagreeable, even petty actions that spring up between siblings. Simone retains her father’s memory. “I was his favorite,” she insists. Their ramshackle house, funky, lived in, is lined by the massive tree that Simone becomes increasingly convinced holds some kind of mysterious connection to her father. Waking her mother one late night, she drags Dawn outside and insists her father communicates with her. In response, Simone increasingly takes sanctuary in the massive personal fortress she constructs there. (She even has lights for her reading.)
The title card sequence demonstrates just how capable Bertuccelli is with the camera. The ensuing tale shifts between the material and the ecstatic realm of the imagination.  Bertuccelli finds a sharp and persuasive balance, never going too far.  “The Tree” is grounded in very real, concrete emotions of pain and absence.
Dawn’s own emotional transformation is given an unexpected jolt, when she takes a job as an assistant to George (Martin Csokas), a ruggedly good looking contractor and plumber.  His own past, a wife and family, is something of a mystery. The two have an ease and attraction that enables the shell shocked Dawn to finally awake from a slumber. Their developing relationship causes fissures and difficulties for the children, especially Simone, resentful about what she regards as her mother’s repudiation of the father’s memory.
“The Tree” has a tenderness that acknowledges the resourcefulness and resilience of young kids. Bertuccelli and her exceptionally cinematographer Nigel Bluck draw on the architecture and physical space of the tree in emotionally plangent ways, like a beautiful and mesmerizing shot of both mother and child in repose, their bodies framed against the massive oak branches and wide trunk.
If the tree acts as a particular kind of succor, it also strangely threatens the family’s lifestyle and habitat. It has grown exponentially and unruly, the branches, roots and foliage now appear uncontrollable and mess with the foundation and infrastructure of the house, like the plumbing. (In the film’s least interesting development, the overgrowth also incurs the wrath of the family’s next door neighbor.)
As Dawn is confronted by the uncomfortable though inevitable decision to slow the growth by winnowing it or sheathing the branches, Simone stages her own private rebellion that occasions a new reckoning among Dawn, George and the rest of the family.
The very nature of the storytelling is somewhat quiet and interior, which Bertuccelli compensates with a concise and revealing visual design. She finds unexpected, charged meaning in the images, captured from a vivid and telling subjectivity, like an amazing underwater point of view shot from Simeon’s perspective as she simultaneously marvels and becomes scared at the primordial way a stingray floats at the bottom or the freedom and daring of the open road when she and her best friend ride the back of her father’s truck.
In “The Tree,” character trumps story. Like the title suggests, nature is very much a beast. It is both the movie’s conflict and source of strength to explore with feeling and exactness how people respond to events beyond their control. The movie shuttles between the two sometimes warring points of view, between the somewhat hardened and devastated Dawn trying to piece together her life and the equally headstrong, tough and impervious Simone. In the end, you cannot take your eyes off either one.