Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Family that Prunes Together: The Tree

Their mother is French-British-Australian. Dad is a tree. It is not magical realism, but simply the projection of a young girl still grieving her father—at least most likely. The family issues are certainly real enough in Julie Bertuccelli’s The Tree (trailer here), the closing night selection of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, which opens this Friday in New York.

The O’Neils live an idyllic hardscrabble life. Their father, Peter, earns enough to cover the necessities, while their mother, Dawn, looks after the kids. Simone has the entire Australian wilderness as her backyard, but more often than not, she plays with her siblings in the enormously cinematic fig tree shading their house. Tragically, she is with her father under that same tree when he dies of a freak heart attack. As she struggles with bereavement, Simone starts to believe her father is whispering to her through the wind in the tree’s leaves.

Her mother accepts Simone’s attempts to commune with father, perhaps even encouraging them, because she too has not yet been able to let go. However, as the tree’s roots begin to breach the foundation of their home, some painful decisions will have to be faced.

Based on the novel by Australian Judy Pascoe, a former circus acrobat (a fact not especially germane but interesting nonetheless), Bertuccelli minimizes the fantastical vibe, focusing on the mystical but terrestrial beauty of the natural surroundings. A credit to the scouting team, the titular tree truly evokes deep archetypal images. Indeed, as cinema, The Tree is quite accomplished, featuring some impressive storm effects worthy of a bigger budgeted film.

In every sense though, Charlotte Gainsbourg is the glue holding it all together. She has warm and inviting screen presence that is difficult to put into words. She certainly exudes an earthy sexuality, but she is also quite mom-like, altogether well suited to Bertuccelli’s story of family drama. She also forges some smart and realistically grounded chemistry with Marton Csokas as George Elrick, her employer, plumber, and halting love interest.

Frankly, that domestic angst gets layered on a bit heavy at times. However, Bertuccelli realizes that a wide shot of the still sprawling Aussie wilderness is always a nice palate cleanser and a tight shot of Gainsbourg immediately refocuses the audience. Cinematographer Nigel Bluck definitely evokes the look and feel of early Peter Weir films, which is high praise indeed.

If kids really bug you under any circumstances, than you have to pass on The Tree. However, those who can deal with them for short intervals will be struck by an achingly sensitive performance from Gainsbourg and perhaps the most photogenic backyard in the world. Recommended for Gainsbourg fans and readers of women’s fiction a cut above Oprah Book Club selections, The Tree opens this Friday (7/15) in New York at the Village East.