The Tree Review
The release of her second film proves that it’s going to be hard to pin down Julie Bertuccelli, who started her career as an assistant director to Otar Iosseliani, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Bertrand Tavernier, as simply just a French filmmaker. Her first feature, Since Otar Left (indicating the Iosseliani influence), was mainly set in post-Soviet Georgia, a gentle and touching story of the hardships faced there by three generations of women in a family who have lost the sole male figure in the family and find it difficult to accept. For her second feature The Tree (L’Arbre), Bertuccelli also finds herself far from France, locating the film in Australia, the original setting of the film’s source novel, Judy Pascoe’s 'Our Father Who Art In The Tree'.
The title of the original novel makes explicit what is hinted in the film’s title of The Tree, which, like Bertuccelli’s first film, similarly deals with paternalistic sentiments and the impact on the family unit when that stable, protecting element is lost. This can be viewed realistically in a literal sense, but there are also implications in a wider social context. In Since Otar Left, Otar, like many males in former Soviet satellite nations, has left, going to Paris to look for work and provide for his family, only to die in an accident on a construction site. The loss of Otar and its impact on several generations of a family, can also however be seen as a metaphor from the uncertainty and instability that the country undergoes with the break-up of the USSR and its struggle to find its own feet again.
In The Tree, the loss of the father in the O’Neill family, living in a small remote community in Queensland in Australia, is no less acutely felt on a personal and emotional level by his wife Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and his four children. One of the girls however, Simone (Morgana Davies), believes that their father’s spirit remains with them in the huge sprawling tree that overhangs their house. The tree comes to symbolise for Dawn as well the huge protective influence that has been lost, and both turn to it in times of need for guidance and comfort. As looming and protective as the wonderful tree seems to be however, it doesn’t prove to be enough to deal with the realities of trying to work and bring up a family of four young children, and the family have other problems to “weather” in such a place.
Choosing to shoot the film in Australia rather than relocate it somewhere closer to home is a wise decision on the part of the director, and her handling of the subject with delicacy and understatement shows that she understands the material perfectly. The emotional content of the story and the implications of a family “uprooted” by the loss of the father works on a universal level of course, as do even the underlying implications of humanity weathering the unreliable and unpredictable twists of nature, but it seems even more relevant and on an appropriate scale when set in Queensland, particularly in the light of the recent extremes of typhoons and flooding that have affected the region.
In such an extreme and beautiful landscape then – wonderfully photographed – Bertuccelli finds a deeper expression of the comparatively understated emotional response to the impact of the O’Neill family to their loss, as well as taking its meaning to another level. The film’s central performances from Charlotte Gainsbourg and young Morgana Davies are key to making this work convincingly, and both are superb.