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A Family Grieves Under The Shadow Of ‘The Tree’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
July 14, 2011

The tree in Julie Bertuccelli’s The Tree is an enormous fig with roots that flop over the ground like tentacles and enough room up its trunk to support a small network of treehouses, furnished with all the modern amenities. It towers over a spacious family home in rural Australia, acting as protector and threat, and an imposing force either way. Should it be cut down to save the house? Or would the family lose its bearings without it?

In case it wasn’t obvious already, this is not one those times where a fig is just a fig.

Based on Judy Pascoe’s novel Our Father Who Art in a Tree, The Tree turns on the sort of all-consuming metaphor that tends to play much better on the page than on the screen. In a book, the fig might well have been an elegant symbol of how a family reconstitutes itself after losing one of its own; in Bertuccelli’s film, however, it acts as a giant deus ex machina, driving the story at all of the important junctures while also suggesting how the events are to be interpreted. It hangs over the audience just as ominously as it does the characters that live under its shadow.

After hastily establishing the contented domestic lives of an attractive married couple and their four children, The Tree doesn’t waste much time in visiting them with tragedy. When her husband, a truck driver who moves houses in the Outback, drops dead of a heart attack on their front lawn, Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) isn’t quick to pull out of an emotional tailspin. With their mother temporarily crippled by grief, the children are left to fend for themselves, which causes practical problems beyond the confusion and sadness of dealing with their own loss.

Of the four kids, the focus falls mainly on 8-year-old Simone (Morgana Davies), a sunny and precocious girl who becomes convinced that her father’s spirit has taken up residence in the fig tree. Dawn indulges — and to a degree, finds comfort in — her daughter’s connection to the tree, but when its roots and branches begin to encroach on the house, it changes her thinking. Not coincidentally, when a handsome plumber (Martin Csokas) turns up to give her a job and something more, she has to consider the hard wisdom of cutting it down.

A former assistant director to such Euro-art luminaries as Bertrand Tavernier and Krzysztof Kieslowski, Bertuccelli revisits some of the emotional terrain of her debut feature, 2003′s Since Otar Left, which also concerns the unusual and sometimes self-destructive ways people cope with a death in the family. On a technical level, The Tree marks a significant advance over the humble utility of Bertuccelli’s previous film, drinking in Australia’s pastoral majesty with an abundant eye for beauty that falls just short of the intended poetry. Yet the characters aren’t nearly as resonant, despite Gainsbourg’s potent combination of earthiness and brittle intensity, and Davies’ sensitive portrayal of a child who combats loss with a fertile imagination.

In the end, the metaphor dominates. At every turn, the fig tree makes a statement: It comforts at a time of greatest sorrow, stands in for the deceased husband as a romantic rival and finally comes to represent the destructive force of a grief carried for too long. After a while, carrying The Tree along becomes a burden even its colossal branches are too strained to handle. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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