Review by Marc Glassman
Julie Bertuccelli, director and writer
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg (Dawn), Morgana Davies (Simone), Marton Csokas (George), Aden Young (Peter), Christian Byers (Tim), Tom Russell (Lou), Keith Carradine (Rev. Diggs)
There is a scene early in The Tree, French director Julie Bertucceli’s poetic film set in the outskirts of a small Australian town, which operates as a litmus test for the audience. A young girl is snuggling in the immense mass of branches and bark of a Moreton Bay Fig Tree. She starts talking aloud to her father, who has recently died of a heart attack while driving her home in the family van. The wind picks up, the branches sway and the camera tilts towards the night sky. The girl becomes silent, caught up in the wonder of the moment. It’s clear that she feels that her father’s spirit is speaking to her from the tree.
Now, you either buy a scene like that or you don’t. Especially when it isn’t just the eight year-old Simone who thinks her Dad, Peter, is in the tree; her older brother Tim half-believes it and, more to the point, their mother Dawn is almost persuaded, too.
The Tree skirts the terrain between dreams and reality, inviting the viewer to almost believe that Simone’s hopes are true. Certainly, the loss of Peter has crumbled family life. Dawn is perpetually exhausted. She can’t control her brood of three boys and a girl without her husband. When Tim tries to help, she inadvertently pushes him away.
Things change when Dawn goes to town to get a plumber to fix the sinks and toilets, which have been clogged by the tree’s roots. She finds a plumber alright: George, who offers her a job and, soon afterward, some much needed romantic companionship. Naturally, George’s presence adds another disruptive element in Dawn’s family.
Worse, the tree begins to act up–or perhaps it’s just nature taking its course. A huge branch from the tree falls down, smashing Dawn’s bedroom wall and ending up right on her bed. (Naturally, she cuddles it for one night before George shows up to cut it into pieces and drag it away). And the tree’s roots keep on growing, causing consternation among Dawn’s many nosy neighbours.
As a crisis builds around the fate of the tree, a cyclone begins to manifest its presence in the Australian skies. The finale of The Tree becomes as dramatic as any mainstream feature film, a surprising contrast to the observant—by turns somber and playful–approach of the rest of the piece. Happily the denouement returns to the earlier tone.
The Tree features two exceptional performances, by newcomer Morgana Davies who embodies the willful, hot-tempered, still childish Simone to perfection and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who brings the charismatic Dawn–mother, perpetual adolescent, dreamer–to life.
The Tree is, at its heart, poetry, not prose. You either love it or hate it. I chose to go with the characters and situation. Others may not. It’s a silly story–unless you decide to believe it.