Films about the loss of a loved one – a parent, a child, a partner, a friend – have been a staple of cinema almost since its inception. Our inability to forget or move on with our lives is one of the characteristics that makes us human and filmmakers are always looking for new ways to examine how we cope (or fail to cope) with death. “The Tree” is not exactly an inspired take on the idea, but does have certain elements that make it a very touching cinematic experience. As the old adage goes, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that counts. This is absolutely true for “The Tree.”
The film opens with stunningly beautiful shots of the Australian outback, as magnificent as it is sparse. Truck driver Peter O’Neil (Aden Young) is hauling an entire house from one location to another (an incredibly fitting metaphor which will seem quite prescient later in the film). After the job, he heads home, but just before he gets there he suffers a massive heart attack and crashes into the enormous fig tree that abuts the house. His wife, Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and their children come running to help, but to no avail.
We flash forward about two months to see the children running the house and Dawn essentially shackled to her bed, paralyzed with depression. Dawn’s only daughter, Simone (Morgana Davies), begins spending a great deal of time in the tree alternating between climbing on and hiding in it and one day she believes she hears her father’s voice coming from the tree. Convinced that is where he went when he died, she is soon talking back to the tree and bringing it presents in an effort to hold on to her father a little longer. She tells her mother that dad’s soul has gone into the tree and Dawn is at first dismissive, then begins humoring Simone and finally appears to hear the voice herself.
Once she is able to function more fully, Dawn realizes that without Peter’s salary, she must find a job to support her family. Though she is qualified to do nothing, she is able to take a job in the plumbing supply store of George Elrick (Marton Csokas). In addition to everything else that is happening, Dawn soon finds out that the tree’s roots have begun to spread into their septic tank and plumbing and are also beginning to damage the house’s foundation. She asks George for his opinion and it is not what she wants to hear: the tree must be cut down or the damage will be irreparable.
Directed by Julie Bertuccelli, “The Tree” takes a very impartial view of the events that take place. There is no good guy or bad guy (except maybe luck), and the characters’ actions are never judged as being right, wrong or crazy. Having received wonderful critical praise for her first film, “Since Otar Left,” Bertuccelli returns with a storyteller’s sense of objectivity. But this also works against her and the film, however, as "The Tree" seems to end abruptly and without resolution. Dealing with death and grief is something that every person will have to face at one time or another in their lives and though we shouldn’t be told the proper way to handle the inevitable, as an audience we deserve more than a deus ex machina as a substitute for believable character growth or decisions.
Gainsbourg is terrific as Dawn with whom we oscillate between sympathy and frustration. As an actress, Gainsbourg is just beginning to get the attention she deserves. Her work with Lars von Trier in 2009’s “Antichrist” and this year’s “Melancholia” has proven her to be a brave and intelligent performer. It is young Davies as Simone, however, that steals the movie from start to finish. She is perfect in her role as the hard-headed and determined daughter who wants nothing more than her father back. While Simone is at times infuriating for her refusal to be reasonable, these are the moments when Davies’ skills as an actress are most obvious and enjoyable.
Bertuccelli and her production team reportedly visited over 200 different fig trees looking for the right one to play the critical lead character. The one they chose is absolutely massive, which is an integral part of the story. The tree forces itself into the family’s life as well as practically every shot of the film. Cinematographer Nigel Bluck, who worked as Second Unit Director on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, captures the tree’s meaning and importance with breathtaking shots of its branches, leaves and flowers. Bluck also does a wonderful job capturing the true beauty of Australia’s outback, an alien place for most people who will see the film. The film’s action is accompanied by Gregoire Hetzel’s amazing score, which is so well-infused into the action that it is barely noticed but always felt.
“The Tree” is beautifully filmed and well-acted, but can’t ever quite rise above being only mediocre in terms of the story it is trying to tell and the vast implications it tries to explore. [C+]