Bereavement Australian Style: “The Tree”
Directed by Julie Bertucelli
Written Julie Bertucelli
France / Australia – 2010
The Tree, which closed the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, is almost certainly something of a UFO in the familiar, often formulaic landscape of much contemporary French cinema. Not only is Julie Bertucelli’s second feature set in far-flung Australia (her first film, Since Otar Left, largely took place in out-of-the-cinematic-way Georgia), it also escapes the oftentimes staid genre pigeonholing that characterises a lot of French production. All the more commendable, then, that despite its ‘randomness’ and inauspicious odds, this French-Australian female-dominated coproduction did make it to Cannes.
Based on “Our Father Who Art in the Tree.” a novel by Australian Julie Pascoe, The Tree stars French cinema staple Charlotte Gainsbourg and 8-year old Aussie newcomer Morgana Davies, as mother-of-four widow Dawn and her cherubic, whimsical daughter Simone. After the sudden death of Peter, Dawn’s stereotypically handsome, tanned truck-driver husband, the widow succumbs to crippling grief, while wily Simone outright repels inconceivable reality by imputing the huge fig tree into which Peter’s truck crashed to a halt with her dead father’s spirit. The three boys, meanwhile, are only marginal characters who act as a counterpoint of certain normalcy to the leading female duo’s unconventional struggle with bereavement.
And to the audience’s delight, it is the cuteness-overkill daughter who seems to come on top in the oedipal undercurrent of the storyline. Once Dawn tentatively heeds her daughter’s delusions, her quasi-unbearable bereavement seems somewhat attenuated: like a drowning woman clutching a straw, Dawn nestles in the soughing boughs of the tree after a mighty chunk of it collapses onto her bed nearly killing her and her youngest son. While Gainsbourg delivers the usual fare to which one is accustomed from countless French films – her stock introvert, ultra-sensitive, tragic heroine is accomplished with the usual muffled classiness – young Davies’s charisma and spunk coruscate onscreen. Of course, Gainsbourg’s performance as the almost extraterrestrially out-of-place half-English, half-French widow stranded in an anonymous outback town is habitually efficient, perhaps even carrying a wider significance if viewed as an alter ego for director Julie Bertucelli, herself widowed at the same age as the main character.
The fig tree is the bearer of the Oedipal motive – Simone is the self-appointed guardian of her father’s memory; her pathological love for him and unmitigated hostility to Dawn’s new relationship presage the ominous climax filled with textbook pathetic fallacy in which tropical cyclones, invasive tree roots and collapsing branches endanger the family’s life presumably as a comment on the transgressive (i.e. slowly revivifying) mother. The symbolism is intentionally unsubtle – the tree roots standing for the progenitor’s continued presence and the references to the area’s past as an Aboriginal burial ground both signify the encroachment of the past onto the present. While the Aboriginal subplot would have offered ample potential for defamiliarisation, little is made of the stunning natural surroundings’ spiritual heritage in the complex Aboriginal worldview. While the wistful beauty of Nigel Bluck’s cinematography more than does credit to the breathtaking landscape, eschewing exoticism is perhaps the wiser choice for the outsider crew: adhering to what was likely the director’s primary thrust in making the film – bereavement, grief, the (im)possibility of life after loss – in the end results in a low-key ode to the immutability of familial ties. Roots, that is.