Reviewed at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
During Julie Bertuccelli’s “The Tree,” closing this year’s Cannes Film Festival out of competition, I started mentally tracing back the chain of decisions that landed the film on-screen before me — in no small part because that process was far more engaging and diverting than anything playing out on-screen in Bertuccelli’s maudlin, mawkish pagan-pastoral grief-and-growth melodrama.
Who thought it was a good idea to have “The Tree” close Cannes? Going back even farther, who thought “The Tree” would make a good film? Adapting Julie Pacoe’s novel “Our Father Who Art in the Tree,” “The Tree” offers audiences a mix of syrupy sentiment and high-fiber sensitivity, squandering Charlotte Gainsbourg’s rough, ragged and real charisma on a familiar plot line dragged down by even more familiar soft-soap cliches and entirely predictable plot turns.
In the Australian outback, the O’Neil family is happy; so happy, in fact, that anyone who’s seen a film will wonder which of them will die, and when, mere milliseconds after we meet start to meet them. Dad Peter (Aden Young) has a sudden heart attack — clutching his chest, slumping over the wheel — leaving his wife Dawn (Gainsbourg) to founder in her grief and try to help the O’Neil’s clan four children cope in the wake of the loss.
Simone (Morgana Davies) — the second-youngest, the only girl, golden-haired and plucky — becomes convinced that she can hear her father speaking to her through the huge sprawling fig tree that looms over their Queensland home’s yard. Dawn, herself shattered, doesn’t object to her daughter’s coping mechanism, and even seeks comfort in that fantasy herself.
It’s not that the story of a family stricken by grief is an unacceptable one for a film to explore and articulate; it’s just that “The Tree” consistently and constantly takes the path of least resistance towards its conclusion, with only the occasional natural disaster — not character’s choices or actions — driving the engine of the film’s plot.
When Dawn stumbles into a local plumber’s — she’s got a problem with frogs in the pipes — not only is the owner George (Martin Csokas) stunningly handsome, single and sensitive, he’s also looking to hire part-time help. (Even more odd is the idea that despite their town looking approximately as large as a postage stamp, Dawn and George clearly have never met.) When the fig tree’s tangled roots start to disrupt plumbing and the fence and porch of the sniffy next-door neighbor, of course there will be heated discussions of whether or not the tree must come down, with Simone pulling a Julia “Butterfly” Hill and moving into the branches when George comes by with a winch and a saw to try and help Dawn out.
Everyone involved in “The Tree” is clearly well-intentioned (as eldest son Tim, Tom Russell stands out as he tries to force the family to move forward), and one can only imagine how the film might have been improved if another hand had been involved in shaping the material instead of Bertuccelli directing her own adaptation of the novel. But watching Gainsbourg cry, sleep and, sniff, dare to be happy again for nearly two hours is so clearly beneath her that it’s painfully obvious how much she’s wasted. Cinematographer Nigel Bluck gets some beautiful images out of the muck of the script — the wilds of Australia remain as bleakly picturesque as ever — but, again, the dreary conventionality and by-the-numbers numbness of “The Tree” are hard to take.
Someone must have gotten “The Tree” to Cannes somehow, and my curiosity about that is far more interesting than anything in the film’s blandly soothing hundred minutes, which amount to nothing more than re-hashed Book of Ecclesiastes homilies with an Australian accent: To everything, there is a season, and so on. “The Tree” doesn’t feel like a film that should be debuting at Cannes’ premiere venue, le Palais des Festivals; it feels like it should be screening on le channel du Hallmark.
“The Tree” does not yet have US distribution.
[Photos: “The Tree,” Taylor Media, 2010]