The Tree

You want a standard movie that features strong actors and performances, but never really goes anywhere or bothers to do anything with the flimsy scenario with which it has been entrusted? The Tree is your film.

Charlotte Gainsbourg lives on a farm in Queensland with her husband and four children. When her husband succumbs to a heart attack, Gainsbourg is cast adrift and her daughter is convinced that the giant Moreton Bay Fig on their property is home to her father’s spirit.

And that’s it.

Sometimes it feels that if you’ve seen one “grieving family” story, you’ve seen them all. Where most of them would condescend to bother showing the survivors picking themselves up and moving on with their lives, The Tree thwarts all attempts at having Gainsbourg recover normality by throwing hokey spirituality and misplaced sentimentality at both her character and the audience.

The Tree closed Cannes, and after I’m done writing this review I’m interested to see what they thought of it. It’s not bad, but it’s very middle-of-the-road. It’s the sort of movie that would get run over by a legitimate heavy hitter, a film that can’t claim to have the sort of subtlety or texture to be able to withstand a barrage from legitimate competitors.

It’s the sort of movie that makes you want to mix metaphors to explain its shortcomings.

Gainsbourg does the best she can with the material she has, and she has an effective mixed Australian/French accent, but she is hampered by the lack of inspiration in the material. Morgana Davies, who plays her daughter, received much acclaim for playing what is ultimately a spoiled and willful child. The film takes place over at least eight months; one could expect her behaviour to tone down. Charm eventually becomes petulance, and my patience ran out for this ultimately “Australian” construct of a little girl.

The act of catharsis is a natural phenomenon. Sometimes there is a specific catalyst, but often the passage of time is enough to make a difference. In The Tree, nothing happens within the family to affect change: an arbitrary shift in the weather brings a close to the story. Who are we to care about this family? Not a single compelling reason is given beyond the fact that these five characters cared about their family’s patriarch and are set adrift by his loss. They stay adrift and don’t do anything to earn our gaze.

The Tree is based on an Australian novel, “Our Father Who Art In The Tree” (an obnoxious title, one I’m glad they toned down), but the writer/director and some of the crew are all French. I don’t think this particularly lends the film a French sensibility: it seems that being shot in Australia and being about Australia is an overwhelming influence in the feel of this film.

Ultimately, The Tree feels flat. Gainsbourg can’t lift it from the pit it wallows in and its third act drama is pointlessly stupid, resolved by chance rather than anything concrete.

As only the third competition film, it seemed lacklustre. In the days to come, however, I would learn that there was far worse on the horizon.

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