There have been other films as lovely as The Tree, but for haunting beauty and strangeness, this Australian-French co-production, directed by Julie Bertuccelli and shot in a bare stretch of countryside in Queensland, is hard to beat.
The last Australian-French co-production I remember was Jane Campion’s The Piano (which New Zealand also claimed some credit for), and the two films have much in common: an atmosphere of mystery and barely suppressed eroticism, their stories told from a woman’s point of view and set in forlorn environments.
And both, incidentally, did well at Cannes. The Piano won the Palme d’Or for Campion in 1993, and The Tree was chosen as the closing night film for the festival this year.It’s a story of grief and renewal. The source, a novel by Judy Pascoe, is about an Australian family dealing with the unexpected death of a loved one and learning to move on.
Bertuccelli first explored the idea of grief in Since Otar Left (which also won accolades in France). Like The Tree, it builds its story on the power of the imagination. Two sisters conceal from their mother the news of their father’s death, and the mother survives in a world of pretence.
For Bertuccelli, there was no such consolation in real life. A press kit informs us that while preparing to film The Tree, she received news of the death of her husband and father of her children. I would not normally mention this wholly personal misfortune, but since The Tree is also about the death of a husband and father, it is difficult not to speculate on how much of its power can be traced to the director’s bereavement.
Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lives with her husband, Peter (Aden Young), in a lonely, tumbledown farmhouse. Of their four children, Simone (Morgana Davies) is her father’s favourite. Returning home one day with Simone, Peter suffers a heart attack at the wheel of his truck, which careers off the road and comes to rest amid the tangled roots of a Moreton Bay fig growing next to their house. Simone is convinced that her dead father’s spirit lives on in the tree. She talks to him at night. She hears his voice. And Dawn, somewhat reluctantly, goes along with the pretence.
The tree becomes the film’s central character, a forbidding and sinister presence (as bizarre and inescapable as the looming piano in Campion’s film). Not only are its leafy branches pressed against the sweet-smelling earth, its roots are pressed against the foundations of Dawn’s house. Sooner or later the house will give way or the tree will have to go. Meanwhile, leafy arms are creeping through windows and verandas; a branch crashes through the roof into Dawn’s bedroom. Drains are clogged.
Something must be done. On a visit to town, Dawn seeks the services of George (Marton Csokas, whom I last saw in Romulus, My Father). George runs a business selling bathroom fittings, and is only too happy to stand in as a plumber for a widow as attractive as Dawn. He also offers her a job. The two are drawn to each other, much to the dismay of Simone, who remains loyal to her father’s memory. Simone spends more and more time in the tree, climbing to ever higher branches and refusing to come down.
Australian filmmakers have a good record with spooky stories in the wild. Peter Weir showed the way with Picnic at Hanging Rock; there was Colin Eggleston’s wonderfully creepy, and largely forgotten, Long Weekend, Samantha Lang’s The Well and James Bogle’s enigmatic In the Winter Dark.
But there is nothing of the supernatural in Bertuccelli’s film: everything can be rationally explained, which makes it at once more unsettling and more moving. The temptation to make a ghost story has been resisted. Even so, when Simone and her mother call out Peter’s name and the camera dwells on the dark tangled innards of the tree, we find ourselves listening for some faint answering sound. Was that the murmur of the wind, the rustling of leaves?
The performances seem to me flawless. Gainsbourg has played tougher roles before (in Alejandro Inarritu’s horrendous 21 Grams and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist), but her wiry good looks seem thoroughly at home in an Australian setting, despite traces of an English accent. Csokas projects a natural warmth and charm.
But the film belongs to Davies, who was seven when she played Simone. I am constantly astonished by the work of child actors these days. Where do seven-year-olds (and younger) learn their acting skills? How do they manage such artlessness, such conviction, such naturalism, such depths of understanding?
I have an old fogey’s theory that, raised in an era of audiovisual marvels, they are always comfortable in the presence of cameras. It’s not a theory that explains everything, but it’s the best I can do. Praise is due also to The Tree’s other child actors: Christian Byers and Tom Russell, as Simone’s older brothers, and little Gabriel Gotting, as the silent, traumatised Charlie.
The Tree stands high on any list of fine Australian films of recent years, even if the French are entitled to some credit. There is a message of hope and happiness, of course, never more vividly conveyed than in the scene during a beach holiday when Dawn and Simone play together in the surf (like everything else, Nigel Bluck’s wide-screen camerawork is consistently satisfying). We are left to conclude that happiness is something we can acquire for ourselves, whatever cards have been dealt. As Dawn says: “I choose to be happy, and I am happy.” She may be too much of an optimist, but we love her for it. In its alternating moods of light and darkness, realism and mystery, gladness and sorrow, this modest film comes close to perfection.
Evan Williams, Saturday September 25, 2010
Otar was a lovely, delicately observed film about daily life and keeping grief at bay - the tale of well-intentioned deception designed to keep an elderly Georgian woman from ever discovering that her beloved son, who had moved to Paris, had died there.
The Tree - based on a novel by Australian writer Judy Pascoe - is also the deflection of grief, although its dynamics are very different. It is set in rural Queensland, and revolves around a young family suddenly transformed. We barely get a sense of Peter (Aden Young), whose sudden death leaves his wife, Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and four children shocked and bereft. Dawn, numbed and introspective, can barely stir herself; around her, the children, who range from a toddler to a teenager, try to manage everyday tasks and take care of each other, as best they can.
The huge, spreading Moreton Bay fig of the title, vast and enveloping, looms over the family’s house, the film, the imagination. Bertucelli uses it deftly; it can seem magical, threatening or comforting by turns. Dawn’s young daughter, Simone (Morgana Davies) insists that it allows her to communicate with her father, that she can hear his voice in the tree; Dawn begins to behave as if this might be true, taking refuge, at times, in its branches.
When it becomes clear that its extensive roots are destructive and damaging, she can’t bear to consider that action needs to be taken. At the same time, she has begun to emerge into the outside world, finding work with a local plumber, George (Marton Csokas) with whom she becomes close.
There are lighter moments amidst sadness and volatility. Bertucelli has a sure touch with the children, whose performances have a relaxed, natural quality. Tom Russell (Last Ride, Matching Jack) has a dry delivery that contrasts well with the fey, elusive poise of Davies. Gainsbourg - given a briefly established back-story, to explain what a French woman with a clipped English accent is doing in rural Queensland - has a fierce, haunting quality, and an almost childlike directness.
There’s something contained and low-key about The Tree’s ambitions, as well as moments that are more far reaching and expansive, in which Bertucelli manages to keep a balance between the mystical and the emotional.
And, in the midst of grief, quotidian realities and the sensory adventures of childhood, there’s an extended sequence, a visual and kinetic tour de force, that has a startling impact.
Philippa Hawker, Thursday, September 30, 2010
The story it has to tell is simple enough. Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lives on the outskirts of a small town with her husband, Peter (Aden Young), a long-haul transport driver, and their four children. Although his work takes him away from home for days at a time — an early sequence sees him behind the wheel of a semitrailer, his cargo a house he’s moving to a new location — their existence seems to be idyllic. Then he dies, unexpectedly and unmelodramatically, of a heart attack, his ute gently coming to rest at the foot of the giant Moreton Bay fig in their front yard.
Dawn and her children are faced with the cruel fact that they must live the rest of their lives without him. Dealing with this kind of absence is not like turning off a switch; there are reminders of Peter everywhere. For all of them. Their responses will be familiar to anyone who has grieved for a loved one: in short, everyone.
Bertuccelli focuses on how all of the family members continue to find traces of Peter all around them. For Dawn, he’s still everywhere, mixed into her daily routines, like echoes in a silence. Even after she comes to terms with his loss, there are still constant reminders that he’s not there. When a bat flies inside at night, she’s faced with having to deal with it herself. She manages,
but it hurts. When George (Marton Csokas), who runs a local plumbing business, enters her life, the intimacy she shares with him prompts memories of Peter.
Her children deal with their father’s death differently. The eldest, Tim (Christian Byers), a teenager, keeps his grief clenched up tight. But he also instinctively becomes the man of the house, and he’s the one who takes the initiative and erases Peter’s message to callers on their answering machine. Younger brother Lou (Tom Russell) doesn’t say much either, but he notices things, such as the discarded ute under the house with smudged fingerprints on the windshield.
He’s also in sync with, first, his little sister, Simone (Morgana Davies), and then his mother, when they transform the Moreton Bay fig into a shrine to Peter. For Simone, it’s a connection born of a mixture of imagination and will. A kid with a mind of her own, she tells her friend, ‘‘You have a choice to be happy or sad. And I choose to be happy,’’ and is convinced that the sounds coming from the tree are coming from Peter. For her, Peter has become the tree. Dawn’s scepticism is at least partially belied by her private nocturnal ‘‘conversations’’ with Peter as she sits on a branch smoking a cigarette.
Both a thing of magisterial beauty and an emblem of nature towering over the house beneath, the tree is a character in its own right, leaves whispering in the wind, trunk groaning with the movement of the branches. It poses a threat to them literally, a destructiveness evident in the way its roots play havoc with the house’s foundations, and metaphorically, in the way that Simone remains unable to let go of all that it means to her. And, like the early image of a house on the move, in its responses to the passage of time and the erosion of the soil, it’s also a potent reminder of the transience of things.
Beautifully shot by Nigel Bluck (The Home Song Stories), Bertuccelli’s film has much in common with compatriot Mia Hansen-Love’s wonderful Father of My Children, currently screening elsewhere in town. Their worlds might be far apart, but in their quiet matter-of fact ways, their depictions of families emerging from the trauma of grief and finding ways of moving on are uplifting celebrations of the will to survive. Charlie (Gabriel Gotting), Dawn’s fourth and youngest child, reveals he has been taking it all in and speaks for everyone when, near the end, he utters his first words: ‘‘I don’t wanna die.’’
Sunday, October 3, 2010
SET in rural Queensland and based on
Australian writer Judy Pascoe’s 2002 novel,
Our FatherWhoArt in the Tree, this is a
deeply moving drama about loss, recovery
and starting over. The story it has to tell is
simple enough.Dawn (Gainsbourg) lives on
the outskirts of a small townwith her
husband, Peter (Young), a long-haul
transport driver, and their four children.
Although his work takes him away from home for days at a time – an early sequence has him behind the wheel of a semitrailer, his cargo a house he’s moving to a new location – their existence seems to be idyllic. Then he dies, unexpectedly and unmelodramatically, of a heart attack, his ute gently coming to rest at the foot of the giant Moreton Bay fig in their front yard.
Dawn and her children are faced with the cruel fact that they must live the rest of their lives without him. Their responses will be familiar to anyone whohas grieved for a loved one – that is, everyone.
Director Julie Bertuccelli focuses on how all of the family members continue to find traces of Peter all around them. For Dawn, he’s still everywhere, mixed into her daily routines. Even after she comes to terms with his loss, there are still constant reminders that he’s not there. When a bat flies inside at night, she has to deal with it herself. She manages, but it hurts. When George (Csokas), who runs a local plumbing business, enters her life, the intimacy she shares with him prompts memories of Peter.
Her children deal with their father’s death differently. The eldest, Tim(Byers), a teenager, keeps his grief clenched up tight. But he also instinctively becomes the man of the house and he’s the one who takes the initiative and erases Peter’s message to callers on their answering machine. Younger brother Lou (Russell) doesn’t say much, either, but he notices things, such as the discarded ute under the house with smudged fingerprints on the windshield.
He’s also in sync with, first, his little sister, Simone (Morgana Davies), and then his mother, when they transform the MoretonBay fig into a shrine to Peter. For Simone, it’s a connection born of amixture of imagination and will. A kid with a mind of her own, she tells her friend, ‘‘You have a choice to be happy or sad. And I choose to be happy,’’ and is convinced that the sounds coming from the tree are coming from Peter. For her, Peter has become the tree. Dawn’s scepticism is at least partially belied by her private nocturnal ‘‘conversations’’ with Peter as she sits on a branch smoking a cigarette.
Both a thing of magisterial beauty and an emblem of nature, the tree is a character in its own right. It poses a threat to them literally, a destructiveness evident in the way its roots play havoc with the house’s foundations, as well as metaphorically, in the way Simone remains unable to let go of all that it means to her. And, like the early image of a house on the move, in its responses to the passage of time and the erosion of the soil, it’s also a potent reminder of the transience of things.
Tom Ryan, Sunday October 3, 2010,
Bertuccelli’s adaptation of Judy Pascoe’s
2002 novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree
does not feature the harshly spectacular
scenery of those earlier outback classics. Set on the outskirts of a small town in rural Queensland, The Tree tells the story of a family struggling to cope with the loss of a father, and a giant Moreton Bay fig that comes to play a healing role in their shattered lives.
Bertuccelli has a way of shooting people and their environment — the artful placement of the camera, the concentration on small, telling details, the quick thinking that leads to her capturing nature in all its unpredictable ferocity — that brings Australia alive in ways that eluded Baz Luhrmann. That eye for our country in all its oddness is evident from the start with Bertuccelli opening The Tree with a series of shots of an old Queenslander, not happily nestled in some verdant setting but being hauled along a lonely outback road by truckie Peter O’Neill (Aden Young). It’s a stunningly surreal opening.
When the job is done, Peter is back in the bosom of his large, loving family, with his lovely French-born wife Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg), his studious, sensitive older son (Christian Byers), younger brother Lou (Tom Russell), toddler Charlie (Gabriel Gotting) and feisty, blonde moppet Simone (Morgana Davies).
The family’s idyllic existence is ripped away when Peter dies of a heart attack at the wheel of his truck, with the vehicle careening off the road and crashing into the Moreton Bay fig in the backyard of the family’s ramshackle farmhouse. “The truck and the tree are fused into one,” according to the published screenplay.
Immediately Dawn plunges into an abyss of grief and despair, spending much of her time in bed or wandering around like a zombie,
leaving the children to their own devices and barely keeping the fridge filled with food.
Eight-year-old Simone is equally distraught by the loss of her beloved father — she was his favourite. However, her means of coping take a different tack, with the single-minded, wildly imaginative youngster gradually coming to believe her father’s spirit has taken up residence in the Moreton Bay fig, that he speaks to her through wind blowing through the leaves, and that the
branches are his comforting embrace.
At first, Dawn is annoyed by Simone’s obsession with the tree. But when a branch crashes into her bedroom when she begins a relationship with a local tradesman (Marton Csokas), a development that upsets Simone, Dawn begins to wonder about
the grip that the deceased Peter has on the family.
In lesser hands this tale of loss, grief and renewal might have been unbearably twee, with the symbol of the tree becoming so literal we would have sat tabulating its meaning and not going with the emotional flow.
But Bertuccelli, channelling her own tragic experience into the film (her husband died while she was writing the screenplay), has taken what might have been a therapeutic, message-heavy yarn aimed at children and made a beautiful, mysterious and gratifyingly complex study of how the past and memory can be destructive and powerfully liberating.
Bertuccelli achieves this richness by not overplaying the supernatural elements. A former maker of documentaries, she treats each of the vaguely fantastic incidents naturally, with the gorgeous Gainsbourg, an actress who seems permanently shrouded in melancholy, effortlessly embodying a woman clawing herself back into the world of the living.
But The Tree will probably be remembered as the movie that launched Davies, who was seven years old at the time of filming and pulls off the minor miracle of capturing a child wise beyond her years without ever stepping out of the reality
of her own age.
And, of course, special mention needs to be made of the breathtaking Moreton Bay fig (or the people who found this towering beauty and those who “wrangled” it to meet the story’s needs). It gets my vote to replace Megan Fox in the new Transformers.
Mark Naglazas, The West Australian, Friday October 1, 2010
Simone O’Neil (Morgana Davies) enjoys a
blissful rural childhood, living with loving
parents Peter (Aden Young) and Dawn
(Charlotte Gainsbourg) in a weather beaten
Queenslander in the shade of a beautiful
Moreton Bay Fig tree.
When Peter dies suddenly, Simone is convinced his spirit has moved into the tree, which makes life difficult when the tree’s roots start tearing apart the family home, and when Dawn begins a relationship with the plumber who comes to investigate the problem.
Aussie film producer Sue Taylor (Last Train to Freo) fell in love with Judy Pascoe’s novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree, and fate brought her together with French director Julie Bertuccelli. Their collaboration became The Tree, the film that closed this year’s Cannes Film Festival, receiving a seven-minute standing ovation.
I don’t know that I’d be quite that physical in my appreciation, but despite some minor flaws (a bit too heavy on the swooping crane shots and a bit too light on the pacing) this is another fine film in a year of decent Aussie flicks.
It is interesting to bring a French director here to make an Australian film – interesting to see how Australia looks through their eyes. One might almost expect a hyper-real version of Aussie, with kangaroos on every lawn and blue singlets for everybody, but Julie Bertuccelli’s rural Queensland is just so normal, and the story – of a young family’s struggle to overcome loss – is universal.
Charlotte Gainsbourg is terrific, and quite
apart from her performance, she should be
commended for her accent. When the story moves
along at this pace, without the visual bulimia
most films like to assault you with, you have the
time to notice the small touches, which is why I
appreciated the work by AFI Award-winning (for
Metal Skin and Ned Kelly) production designer
Steven Jones-Evans. His touches are small and
powerful – a cello in the background, a smoking
toaster, an old black and white photograph
of our tree in its younger days with an
Aboriginal working gang before it – say as much
about the family, the state of Dawn’s mind, and
the history of our country as anything the
screenplay might try to evince in less subtle
I have to mention the tree too – it is beautiful, a 130-year-old Moreton Bay Fig that lives on the property of John and Margaret Foote in Boonah, Queensland. Its performance is anything but wooden.
Cris Kennedy, Saturday, October 2,
There’s something of the rough diamond in this exquisite film. The unvarnished rural Queensland images are stunning, and the performances are the stuff of real life.
A French-Australian co-production, The Tree
follows Simone (an extraordinary Morgana Davies), an eight-year-old
who believes that her recently deceased father (Aden Young) speaks
to her through a magnificent Moreton Bay fig (a tree that
apparently took two years of location scouting to “cast”). Young
Davies has wisdom beyond her years, and holds her own as an actress
against the formidable talents of Charlotte Gainsbourg
(Antichrist), who plays her mum, Dawn. Gainsbourg is
sensational, and the widowed Dawn is authentic, inspiring and
French director Julie Bertucelli (Since Otar Left) takes an organic approach, coaxing great performances out of the young cast; Davies may be the stand-out, but the actors playing her siblings are also excellent. An assured filmmaker, Bertucelli drives this at a gentle pace, but the narrative creeps up on you. You’re involved before you even realise it as The Tree builds on itself until the incredible - and cinematic - climax.
The Tree is as much about love - romantic and familial - as it is about loss, with romance appearing in Dawn’s life in the form of local plumber, George (an earthy Marton Csokas). It says something meaningful about the state of grief - living with it and moving through it - while the Moreton Bay fig itself is a character, offering something potentially esoteric. But when it comes to spiritual matters, the film - which has its surprises - leaves you to draw your own conclusions. Loss is central to this story, but this isn’t another Australian film that will be accused of being bleak. It’s realistic yet hopeful, a little mystical and simply quite beautiful. You can see why it was chosen to close the Cannes Film Festival - and why Cannes gave it a seven-minute standing ovation.
by Annette Basile | September 27, 2010
Judy Pascoe’s novel,Our Father Who Art in the Tree, is about a 10-year-old Australian girl grieving for her dead father. She hears his voice in the huge tree in her backyard and spends a lot of time in its embrace. The film is more rural, with a majestic Moreton Bay fig next to a rambling Queensland farmhouse, but French director Julie Bertucelli adds a second sensibility, that of the mother, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.
This is amixed blessing. Gainsbourg adds star quality and adult sorrow but skewing the drama towards her dilutes the pure power of the child’s voice. People who loved Pascoe’s book might regret that. I had not read the book but I still found the film a little ponderous and diffuse, caught between the daughter’s innocence and Gainsbourg’s pouting grief. That’s especially true given how good Morgana Davies is as the child, Simone. Her performance is the film’s greatest asset, by a long chalk.
Bertucelli’s first feature film was the moving and naturalistic Since Otar Left, filmed in part in the former Soviet Union-incorporated Georgia. At one time, she had intended to adapt another tree story, Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, but Calvino refused to sell the rights. A friend gave her Pascoe’s book, so she joined forces with an Australian producer.
While preparing the film, Bertucelli’s ownhusband died, making the project even more personal. Thus,we have a considerable weight of metaphor just belowthe film’s surface, to do with death, nature and letting go. This, too, adds to the film’s adult sensibility and its load.
Films about grief are tricky. The emotions can easily become overelaborated or poetic, risking the sense of lived experience. It may become literary. With The Tree, I felt I was watching two films. The child’s story is beautifully handled and achingly immediate; the mother’s story is never as internal, nor as engaging, but it’s the one that the director puts her faith in.
That judgment may put me in a minority, given that the film received a seven-minute ovation when it closed this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Part of that may be Gainsbourg’s popularity in France, which is considerable; part of it might also be the French tolerance for heavy metaphor, which is greater than my own.
Simone (Davies) is two years younger in the film, a rambunctious eight-year-old with a great sense of fun. She and her best friend, Megan (Zoe Boe), crouch under a railway bridge and scream as a Queensland freight train rumbles above their heads. Simone’s father, Peter (Aden Young), scolds her about the danger, then lets her stand in the back of his ute as he driveshome along dirt roads. The film establishes a strong sense of the rich outdoor life of this family. Peter works delivering preloved houses to outback towns. There is a lovely surreal shot of an old cottage hurtling through mulga on the back of a semi-trailer, a kind of ‘‘only in Australia’’ moment. Peter appears in his prime, then he’s gone, leaving wife Dawn (Gainsbourg) and four children in a tumble-down clapboard house on a hill.
Things start to unravel. Dawn can’t get out of bed. The elder boys, Tim and Lou (Christian Byers and Tom Russell), have to take care of the youngest boy, Charlie (Gabriel Gotting), who’s about three and still not speaking. Simone tries to nag her mother out of bed, then takes refuge in the tree, where the creaking sounds of the wind remind her of her father’s voice. Soon she is spending all her time there, carrying on a conversation with him.
Some child actors defy explanation and Morgana Davies is one. She has amatter-of-fact truthfulness that could never be taught but Bertucelli knows how to use it. A child talking to her dead father in a tree could easily become sentimental and morose. Instead, it makes you catch your breath. Simone has a blazing independence and stubbornness that balance her broken heart. She’s as strong as the tree, in her way.
Gainsbourg is less convincing. She can be a self-conscious actor, tending towards sameness in her performances, and Bertucelli lets her get away with it. The script just keeps throwing things at her, mostly weather events that allow the tree to behave like an avenging spirit. That tips the film a little too much towards hysteria rather than drama; a controlled exercise rather than an eruption. I don’t blame her for that but it makes the film a slightly more cerebral experience and not one that shakes your bones.
Paul Byrnes, 2 October, 2010
It tells the story of a young girl dealing with the
untimely passing of her father, only to become convinced that his
spirit has inhabited the giant tree in her backyard. It deals with
death and grief not with rose-tinted glasses, but with painful
clarity. It’s sad, and sweet, and funny, but never sappy (despite
the omnipresence of its titular sap-filled figure). The closest
comparison I can think of is
E.T., or even better,
Close Encounters of the Third Kind – right down to its
cathartic, challenging ending.
Aden Young stars as Peter O’Neil, the kindly father of three boys and a young girl, and husband of Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg). We’re briefly introduced to him, before he’s taken away in a moment of cosmic incredulity. He suffers a fatal, unprovoked heart attack while driving home, and his car rolls into the enormous Poinciana tree in his family’s front yard. The O’Neils are instantly fractured; eldest boy Tim (Christian Byers) struggles with being the new man of the house; youngest boy Charlie (Gabriel Gotting) refuses to speak; and Dawn turns to local plumber (Marton Csokas) for comfort. But 8-year-old Simone (Morgana Davies) “chooses happiness”, and begins to spend her days with the eponymous tree, through which she believes her father is watching over their family from beyond the grave. Although the tree protects them at first, it soon becomes apparent that its roots are too deeply embedded in their lives, and it soon begins to strangle the family, and stifle any opportunity of moving on.The Tree is based upon
Based on an acclaimed novel titled Our Father Who Art in The Tree by Brisbane-born, UK-based novelist Judy Pascoe, adapted and directed by a Frenchwoman and made in Australia with a cast of local and French talent. It is a deeply moving affair that will slowly work its way into the hearts of viewers thanks to the bare emotions on display and the heart-breaking work of its cast. The Tree is something special and something to be treasured.
Set in country Queensland, Bertuccelli’s first feature since the award-winning Since Otar Left is a unique story: French powerhouse Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Dawn O’Neil, wife to Peter (Aden Young) and mother to Tim (Christian Byers), Lou (Tom Russell), Simone (Morgana Davies) and Charlie (Gabriel Gotting). After her father’s death, eight-year-old Simone – and eventually Dawn herself – begin to believe that his soul has inhabited the mammoth Moreton Bay Fig tree that expands throughout the O’Neil’s expansive property. Each finds comfort in the feeling that their father and husband is still with his family, but as the tree’s life also comes to an end due to the drought, this family must learnt to live once and for all without Peter.
This may sound like heady, high-falutin stuff, but Bertuccelli handles it with such a powerful sense of technical skill and heart-felt emotion that it all works. An audience member’s willingness to believe the unbelievable is vitally important since the very idea of a soul inhabiting a tree is of course ludicrous. However, the film succeeds by slowly chipping away at the viewers’ cynicism and misgivings about such a plot with a succession of poignant, delicately handled sequences filled with minutiae and milieu. Bertuccelli and her cast never second-guess themselves in how they are treating this material and their faith in the material is vital to the film’s success.
Bertuccelli’s movie is a technical marvel, too. It must be said that Gainsbourg and Davies provide one of the finest mother-daughter acts seen on screen in quite some time. Gainsbourg’s ability to externalise inner torment and passion has been seen many times before, most notable in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist for which she won Best Actress at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, but she also has a way of radiating warmth from her characters. Here she shines and the blossoming of her character throughout the film is a joy to behold. Young Morgana Davies, it must be said, gives one of the greatest child performances this writer has ever seen. Much like the cyclone that looms over the third act (yes, there is a cyclone), Davies is a force of nature and without her the film would not work as well as it does.
If anyone trumps the actors in The Tree then it is surely the title character. This stunning Moreton Bay Fig is 20 metres tall and 34 metres wide, it’s branches spread from one edge of the screen to the next. It’s a stunning piece of imagery on screen in a film that is filled with memorable images, both large and small, courtesy of Nigel Bluck’s gorgeous sun-drenched cinematography. Bluck’s screen is routinely framed by the tree’s branches and it’s tangled roots. Grégoire Hetzel’s score, fusing strings, piano and guitar, and editing by François Gédigier help the film flow like limbs of a tree reaching towards the sky.
If there is one negative to be found in The Tree is it the way the story’s metaphors are rarely ever subtle. Whether they are as obvious in the book as they are in Bertuccelli’s film I cannot say, but when characters talk about the roots of this omnipresent piece of native flora infiltrating the lives of everyone around them, it’s hard to not feel like the writer is hitting us over the head. The character of Lou also feels clumsy, as if he was an afterthought, never given enough time of his own for the film to navigate his feelings about his deceased father and the thought that maybe he has returned in such an uncommon way.
Nevertheless, it is easy to forgive such lapses in storytelling when the rest of the film is so rock solid and strong. It’s a French film at heart, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also feel uniquely Australian. It is not an immediate piece of cinema, but instead one that works its way into the audience’s mind through the performances and images. Much like the roots of the Moreton Bay Fig at the film’s centre, The Tree will dig and bury itself into your brain and hopefully fill you with something deep and meaningful. It is a beautiful film and one that will remain with me for years to come. As Bertuccelli was preparing to film The Tree she received word that her husband had died and that, like Dawn, would have to go on being a single mother to her children. It’s hard to see this as Bertuccelli’s own love letter to her late husband and, with that, one of the most personally striking films of the year.
Glenn, Dunks, 30 September 2010
After the sudden death of her husband Peter (Aden Young, Mao’s Last Dancer) Dawn (import Charlotte Gainsbourg, Antichrist) is immobilised by grief, struggling to care for her four children including the wise-beyond-her-years Simone (newcomer Morgana Davies).
Inside their rural Queensland house time stands still, as domestic mess accrues and flowers of sympathy whither. But outside, something mystical is at play. Simone believes her father watches over them, that she can hear him whispering through the branches of a giant Moreton Bay Fig tree. Dawn is unsure what to believe. Slowly emerging from her cocoon of grief, she begins a romance with local plumber George (Marton Csokas, South Solitary) much to the indignation of Simone and the tree simultaneously flourishes, its roots and branches pervading the house.
No doubt a challenge for The Tree’s makers is how to have the audience suspend disbelief and engage with this eponymous, quaint centerpiece of the story as a nurturing, if invasive force of nature, a conduit for healing and change. The production’s attention to detail helps no end; from the evocative sound design of screeching inhabitant bats to the luminous cinematography of bull ants scampering up the tree’s branches, amongst the rustic country of Boonah, Queensland.
That’s matched by uniformly impressive performances. Davies is the beating heart of the film, a natural performer (she was only seven at the time of filming) with a wealth of spirit. Gainsbourg is emotionally affecting while Young is a warm presence in his small but crucial role.
French writer/director Julie Bertuccelli (Since Otar Left) unquestionably brings an intimate understanding of grief and single motherhood, having lost her husband in 2006. But as she says, The Tree becomes more about living than death. It contrasts Dawn’s initial stricken state with the determined positivity of Simone. “You have a choice to be happy or sad,” she says. “And I choose to be happy.”
There is an earthy sense of humour too amongst the sadness and charming moments of childhood joy – from riding in the back of a ute wind blowing in hair to sucking on ice blocks on a sticky day.
The Tree is a ponderous film and may not be to everyone’s taste but it avoids the ‘kitchen sink drama’ tag through its original premise. It’s a ruminative, universal exploration of grief and the life force that can flow from it. Quite literally, life taking over.
Jim Mitchell, September 29, 2010
Allure, subtlety and sensitivity combine in this film
that closed the 63rd Cannes Film Festival, out of
competition: Julie Bertuccelli’s English-language
French/Australian co-production The
Centred on the mourning process of a woman (played by an outstanding Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her young children during the year following the sudden death of the head of the family, this understatedly moving film subtly makes a connection between rebuilding oneself as a person and the power of nature embodied by a huge fig tree in the wild landscape of Australia…
Filmed in the open Australian bushland, in 100% authentic scenery, The Tree will open your mind. Alternating skilfully between the supernatural and down-to-earth reality, the filmmaker immerses us in the lives of a devastated family, with grace and a delicacy that is illuminated by the presence of Charlotte Gainsbourg.
L’adaptation du best seller de Judy Pascoe, “L’arbre du père”, par la réalisatrice Julie Bertuccelli est un joli conte moderne. Tourné en plein bush australien, dans des décors 100% naturels, ‘L’arbre” nous en met plein la vue. Oscillant habilement entre surnaturel et réalité pragmatique, la cinéaste nous plonge dans la vie de cette famille dévastée avec grâce et une délicatesse illuminée par la présence de Charlotte Gainsbourg.
by Marine Cluet, La Tribune , 11 August 2010.
Rather than letting the film be carried by its animism*, Julie Bertuccelli has created a tender film in search of consolation. Alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg, who presents her fragility with amazing strength, the children look for support, starting with little Simone who spends entire days in the Tree. Embodied by the young Morgana Davies, this child character is one of the most beautiful we have seen in recent times.
* Animism = the belief that natural objects possess souls (dictionary.com)
Plutôt que de se laisser emporter par l’animisme, Julie Bertuccelli a réalisé avec « L’Arbre » un film très doux qui cherche la consolation. Autour de Charlotte Gainsbourg qui impose sa fragilité avec une force étonnante, les enfants cherchent leurs appuis, à commencer par la petite Simone qui passe des journées entières dans l’Arbre. Incarné par la jeune Morgana Davies, ce personnage enfantin est l’un des plus beaux que l’on ait vu ces derniers temps.
by Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde Magazine, 14 August 2010.
A daring and essentially minimalistic subject handled by the director of Since Otar Left in a crescendo rhythm which snowballs bit by bit to an outpouring of raging elements. Julie Bertuccelli immediately establishes a very convincing analogy between the expression of suppressed emotions and a portrayal of nature as being omnipresent in the smallest gestures of everyday life, from the frogs that block the pipes to a Homeric tempest.
Sujet audacieux et a priori minimaliste traité par la réalisatrice de “Depuis qu’Otar est parti…” sur un rythme crescendo, au fur et à mesure du déchaînement des éléments. Julie Bertuccelli établit d’emblée un parallèle très convaincant entre l’expression des sentiments refoulés et une nature omniprésente dans le moindre geste de la vie quotidienne, de ces grenouilles qui bouchent les canalisations à une tempête homérique.
Full review here: http://cinema.nouvelobs.com/critiques/l-arbre,140340
The beauty of The Tree exists in the way it follows the four children and their mother as they conceive their own resolutions – never obvious or exemplary. The film manages to both be joyful and to communicate the heart of absence at the same time, which renders it unique. How do we film something we know, in a way that is not too familiar? And show what we discover when we avoid the fantasy?
«L’Arbre», un tronc au-dessus
La beauté de L’Arbre tient à sa manière de suivre les quatre enfants et leur mère s’inventer leurs issues, jamais évidentes, ni exemplaires. Un film joyeux au coeur de l’absence, c’est une première et c’est sa particularité. comment filmer ce qu’on connaît en échappant à la trop grande familiarité ? Et montrer ce qu’on découvre en évitant l’exotisme ?
By Anne Diatkine, Libération, 11 August 2010
Julie Bertuccelli’s films have an art of “eluding the traps”, which triggers a succession of little miracles of pure cinema. She lightly touches the emotions with a delicacy that never gives way to mawkishness. The imagination leads the dance without disconnecting from a certain degree of plausibility. The film’s view of nature as a protective force doesn’t hide its “hippie” message. In short, this film, which closed the Cannes Film Festival, has a natural and rare grace.
Un conte magique
Il y a, chez Julie Bertuccelli, un art d’esquiver les
pièges qui provoque une succession de petits miracles de pur
cinéma. Elle effleure les sentiments avec une délicatesse qui n’est
jamais de la mièvrerie. l’imagination mène la danse et n’est jamais
déconnectée d’une certaine vraisemblance. La nature vue comme force
protectrice ne cache jamais aucun message “babacooliste”. Bref, ce
film présenté en clôture du Festival de Cannes, a une grâce
naturelle peu fréquente.
Review in Marie France, September 2010
Julie Bertuccelli offers a unique variation on the theme of grief, with the harmony of reverie and the fantastical immersed in a painful reality. Here lies the opportunity to confirm that this female filmmaker has begun to take roots in the landscape of French cinema. And this is good news.
L’arbre de vie
Sur le thème du deuil, Julie Bertuccelli livre ici une
variation singulière, distillant avec harmonie de la rêverie et du
fantastique dans une réalité douloureuse. L’occasion de confirmer
que cette réalisatrice est bien partie pour prendre racine dans le
paysage du cinéma français. Et c’est une bonne
By Thierry Chèze, Glamour n°78, September 2010
This Tree is unforgettable, it roots itself in the audience with a force of images that unsettle with a single rustling of leaves or cracking of branches. Julie Bertuccelli – who has already touched us infinitely with her first film Since Otar Left – succeeds in filming this difficult subject matter with devastating, poignant, and at times, funny consequences…
Cet « Arbre » est inoubliable, il s’enracine dans le
spectateur, avec la force des images qui bouleversent d’un seul
bruissement de feuilles ou d’un craquement de branches. Parce que
Julie Bertuccelli - qui nous avait déjà infiniment touchés avec son
premier film, « Depuis qu’Otar est parti… » - réussit à filmer la
matière de la tristesse avec ce qu’elle a de dévastateur, de
dérisoire pour les autres et parfois aussi de drôle.
By Florence Ben Sadoun, Elle, n°3371 - 6 August 2010
A frequent theme in cinema, loss could have revealed itself as a little pebble on the grave of the genre. But with The Tree, this is not the case. Sadness, new desires, a lack of understanding, attempts at rebirth, freshness, gentleness, and the supernatural traverse this story and magnify it; carried by the imagination of a child, her mother’s natural debilitation, and elusive nature; a majestic tree disturbing the characters’ estrangement in its behaviour. With this film, Julie Bertuccelli has allowed the 2010 Cannes Film Festival to close in beauty.
Maintes fois traité au cinéma, la perte de l’autre aurait pu se révéler n’être qu’un petit caillou de plus poser sur la tombe du genre. Il en n’est rien. Tristesse, nouvelles pulsions, incompréhensions, tentatives de renaissance, fraîcheur, douceur, surnaturel, traversent cette histoire tout en la magnifiant, portée par l’imagination d’une enfant, le naturel désarmant de sa mère, embellie par une nature insaisissable, un arbre majestueux étrangement dérangeant dans son comportement. Avec ce film, Julie Bertuccelli a permis au Festival de Cannes de se terminer en beauté.
Read the full review on: http://www.lepost.fr/article/2010/08/10/2179818_critique-l-arbre-de-julie-bertucelli.html
This beautiful film by Julie Bertuccelli closed the 2010 Cannes Film Festival on 23 May, thereby breaking, at least for a year, the curse of the closing film often being regarded as the worst in the programme. Nevertheless, the Croisette, a night of ceremony, is artificial terrain for this Tree, the central character of a familial film – to use an adjective that may be misinterpreted. This term describes both the story - which depicts a family torn apart by death - and the reception of the audience.
En Australie, l’arbre du deuil et de la vie retrouvée
Ce beau film de Julie Bertucelli a conclu, le 23 mai, le Festival de Cannes 2010, rompant ainsi, au moins pour une année, la malédiction qui voulait que le film de clôture soit le pire du programme. Reste que la Croisette, un soir de cérémonie, est un terreau bien artificiel pour cet Arbre, personnage essentiel d’un film - osons un adjectif qui pourrait être mal interprété - familial. Le terme vaut aussi bien pour l’histoire, qui évoque une famille déchirée par la mort, que pour ses destinataires.
By Thomas Sotinel on Le Monde.fr
It’s a graceful tale of rebirth while climbing out of the crippling valley of loss. But the story and performances aren’t the only beautiful aspects of this film. The cinematography is stellar, and it’s accentuated by a very tender soundtrack by Grégoire Hetzel, who also composed the score for Denis Villeneuve’s heartwrenching Incendies.
by Christopher Sykes at montrealmirror.com
This movie is truly a tree-hugger’s delight (I confess to being one such hugger)…
by Stephen Holden at movies.nytimes.com July 14, 2011
…Gainsbourg’s potent combination of earthiness and brittle intensity, and Davies’ sensitive portrayal of a child who combats loss with a fertile imagination.
by Scott Tobias at npr.org July 14, 2011
The Tree is well-acted…Gainsbourg and Davies…play the scenes naturally, with minimal histrionics.
by Noel Murray at avclub.com July 14, 2011