I’m not sure how I missed this transnational production but, as the UK release schedule expands, smaller releases like this one appear only fleetingly in cinemas before going straight to DVD. I came across The Tree as one of the two earlier features by Julie Bertuccelli, director of School of Babel. (The film did actually close the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 but it was out of competition and therefore not much discussed in the international media.) There are several reasons why The Tree is worth watching. These include the production context, the presentation of Australian landscapes, the direction of child actors and another chance to catch a performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg.
The Artificial Eye Region 2 DVD carries an interesting ‘making of’ documentary (including a sequence of ant wrangling) in which we learn that Ms Bertuccelli was eager to adapt the Italo Calvino novel The Baron in the Tree, but then discovered that this wasn’t possible and started to look for other stories with a tree as a central character. When she read the novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree by Judy Pascoe she was immediately attracted and, with her producer Yael Fogiel, contacted the Australian adaptation rightsholder Sue Taylor. The three women got on well and an Australian-French co-production was organised with funders from both countries, including local film commissions and TV stations.
The original novel focuses on a little girl who experiences the death of her father and then believes that his spirit has in some way taken up residence in a large tree adjacent to the family home. While the rest of her family have their own ways of dealing with the father’s death, Simone climbs into the tree where she can ‘hear’ her father’s voice. Julie Bertellucci decided to change the central narrative by focusing on Dawn, the mother played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and her close relationship with Simone (aged 8 in the film). The other three siblings are three brothers, two older and one only a toddler. Since the oldest boy is studying for school-leaving exams there is a wide age range in the family and the five characters have very different perspectives. The shift to the mother-daughter relationship rather than simply the child’s view is interesting in the spin it gives to the film’s address to its audience. One of the commentators on the book’s appeal writes about Simone’s narration as being similar to Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird. Shifting to the mother-daughter scenario makes the film more consciously about ‘women’s lives’. Julie Bertuccelli adapted the novel herself and with her female producers and a mother-daughter central pair this was just too much female input for one disgruntled male spectator on IMDB.
The story is located in rural Queensland and the film was a long time in preparation as the director searched for the perfect tree. She didn’t want to design/construct a tree. Her documentary background convinced her that the tree had to be ‘real’. Eventually, after two years and many tree viewings the team found a giant Moreton Bay Fig tree (in the novel I think it’s a flame tree of some kind) in Bunnah in Queensland. Standing on its own with an interesting view of the local landscape, the house was constructed around the tree – providing one narrative thread since these fig trees have enormous root systems that threaten drainage pipes and the structural safety of the house itself. At the start of the film we see that the father’s job entails physically moving the wooden houses in the district by low loader, a kind of ironic marker for later events.
Bertuccelli’s focus on the mother leads to what many will see as a highly conventional narrative – she starts another relationship ‘too soon’ after her husband’s death. Yet this story is also a way of commenting on her marriage – she hasn’t worked for the past 17 years (or perhaps not at all) and she knows few people beyond the local women who are mostly older. She needs to get a job and to see something of the world beyond the house. By contrast Simone retreats towards the tree. The core of the narrative offers us an emotional narrative driven by the child’s imagination which draws on ‘arboreal magic’ and the potential power of the wider environment – the drought which threatens all the vegetation and the violent tropical storms. The story in this sense relates to both specifically Australian stories about the bush (I think that there is only one short sequence in which a boy who may be part of a local indigenous community appears with some wildlife) and to more general dramatic narratives in which families face natural disasters. So, how does a non-native Australian director fare in the environment? From my perspective she does well. The ‘reality’ of the tree certainly works. She tells us that the storm was photographed on the spur of the moment when it happened – rather than through preparation and design.
But the film ultimately stands or falls on the central relationship and the two actors. I always find Charlotte Gainsbourg compelling but as Simone, Morgana Davies is remarkable. Her language (and delivery) sometimes sounds like an older child but her mix of strength and vulnerability seems absolutely right. The narrative may be slight in terms of action/events but it is rich in meanings and emotions and the film worked for me overall. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian found it to be an “outrageously twee, spiritual and supercilious drama”. That seems a bizarre comment. Julie Bertuccelli shows how each of the children behave differently in response to their father’s/husband’s sudden death. Dawn is not the mother who bravely holds the family together. The children have strength in their own responses and though there are conventional aspects to the story concerning Dawn and the man she starts a relationship with, overall the narrative remains open-ended. The film is a form of family melodrama with elements of both fantasy and realism.
My only surprise was the size of the budget at €7.7 million. This is a ‘large’ budget by UK standards. French productions have become more expensive in recent years, partly through the inflated fees paid to actors. Charlotte Gainsbourg is certainly a star actor, but I’d be surprised if it was her fee that pushed up the cost. On reflection, it seems to me that the money went on preparation and an extended shoot. It was Bertuccelli’s first time directing children and as well as many retakes for the younger children, she seems to have encouraged the children to be a family on the shoot and not only in front of the cameras. I think that this shows in the finished film as they are believable as a family. Unfortunately the film was not successful in cinemas in Europe (around €2 million at the European box office) and I doubt that the Australian box office was any better. Perhaps the film will be the long term sleeper and prove profitable on DVD and TV as Screendaily predicted. I hope so, it deserves to be seen.
The symbolism might be seen a little heavy-handed at times but it’s a compelling portrait of grief and recovery, which Gainsbourg carries incredibly well. The image of her intertwined in the tree’s branches in her bedroom – like her daughter sits up in its branches – make it also a visually thoughtful and attentive film, even though it appears to be shot very naturalistically. The younger girl’s performance, as you say Roy, is strong enough to suggest that mother could follow the daughter’s lead and find her way out of her of grief. This is very roundly portrayed and believable – through the script and through Gainsbourg’s performance to show how uncontrollable and uncontrollably selfish it is for those in its grip. I noticed that screenwriter Agnes de Sacy is credited, who has worked with Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, for example, and has a very sustained career in French cinema.