In Julie Bertuccelli’s The Tree, the eponymous object, an enormous fig towering over the O’Neil family’s ramshackle house, is frequently filmed as if it were a holy entity, but whether or not it actually provides an animistic communion with the dead is a question the film doesn’t really answer. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter, so long as preteen Simone (Morgana Davies) and, to a lesser degree, her mother, Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg), believe in its mediumistic propensities to facilitate communication with their recently deceased father/husband. Still, no matter if we take them as objective or point-of-view shots, we’re still subjected to endless images of the tree’s branches filmed with a sacred clarity while the sun peaks through the leaves and the melancholy musical score spells out a sense of higher purpose.
Tarkovsky this is not—even if the film (nearly) ends with children watering a sapling—and, while there’s a fine line between the sacred and kitschy, Bertuccelli’s film nearly always falls on the latter half of the divide. It’s probably a question of insufficient visual imagination (witness a scene where the grief-stricken Dawn leaves her bed to follow a sunbeam into the—metaphorical and literal—light), but this is one film that’s overly reliant on a dubious central symbol, schematically employed. Even as the tree provides a refuge for Simone, and is representative of her inability to come to terms with her father’s death, it also provides a sinister side to the equation as its growing roots threaten not only to block the house’s plumbing, but to destroy the family’s home entirely.
Although constantly referencing the fig as a gauge of both Simone and Dawn’s degree of acceptance of their father’s/husband’s sudden death, The Tree is also a wider picture of a family in turmoil. The three other members of the O’Neil clan—Simone’s brothers—are inevitably granted short shrift, given the constraints of the film’s modest running time, and often distract from the more developed stories of mom and daughter. In these latter scenes, Dawn and Simone act out a convincing if hardly revelatory process of moving on from grief, as the former takes up with a new man, an act seen as betrayal by the latter, until Dawn is forced to choose between her new beau and her daughter—and, at the same time, between chopping down and keeping the tree.
Ably lensed by Nigel Bluck on the flats of rural Australia, the cinematographer’s nimble work is too often placed in the service of Bertuccelli’s kitschiness, so that a purple sunset filmed over the oak is both striking as a standalone image and off-putting in the context of the proceeding “holy” shots of the tree. This disconnect between image and vision becomes increasingly problematic during the film’s overdetermined finale. As a cyclone rages across the outback (is nature, after all, animate?), the family takes cover in their cellar, all except for Simone who stubbornly clings to the tree and its talismanic keepsakes that she’s hung in its branches to remind her of her father. As the bolts flash, the DP’s skill at lighting a scene in the rain impresses, even as the storm serves as a cheap device to resolve Simone’s feelings about her father. In the end, it’s all according to the schema, a fact that the combined splendor of the Australian outback and Bluck’s cinematographic talents are powerless to hide.