Not to be confused with this year’s Cannes hit The Tree of Life (though the biblical reference is apt in both), last year’s Cannes hit The Tree – the one we’re talking about now – is a subtle story of tragedy and healing.
Adapted from the Australian novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree, French director Julie Bertuccelli reveals a snapshot of a family struggling to cope with the sudden death of their father. Familiar plot line so far. Then the tempo shifts as the 8-year-old protagonist Simone (first time actress Morgana Davies) starts spending an unusual amount of time up an imposingly large fig tree in the front garden, in which she believes her father’s spirit lives on. Through Bertuccelli’s direction and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s sincerity (playing Dawn, the widowed mother), they achieve the perfect, or anti-perfect picture of isolation. It’s not a case of ‘let’s all pull together’ in a hard time; the family get on each other’s nerves, all in need of support but unable to lend it to one another.
As the mother cries and shouts and shrugs off the responsibilities of her four children, Simone finds solace in the branches, forcing the audience to choose between rationality and spirituality. But just as you’re erring on the side of rationalism, and condemning your inner will to believe in talking trees, the tree takes on an undeniable force in the film. Strange things start happening when branches come crashing into the house after the mother has started moving on with a handsome plumber, and peculiar animals appear in peculiar places. The English viewer will try to attribute these occurrences to the mysticism of ‘Australia’, that 24-hours-away place where we’re sure it’s normal for trees to talk and bats to fly into the kitchen and frogs to climb out of the toilet. It’s the land of promise after all where nature has more room to roam.
Stuck between a fairytale and a melodrama; between human nature and mother nature; between a child’s pain and a widow’s pain, the film gets a little lost in perspective but carries the audience through until salvation comes. i-D online spoke to director Bertuccelli about filming, directing bored children and reincarnation.
When did you read the novel and what made you want to make it into a film? It was an accident because I was looking for a tree story; I wanted to adapt another novel first by Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees. I liked the book because the relationship between the mother and the girl isn’t perfect; the mother is completely lost, but in this loss, the kids can become what they want; she lets them find their own way, and it’s better than forcing them.
Do you want your audience to believe the father’s spirit is in the tree? Is that what you believe? I want the audience to be free to think what they want so I stay always on the line between imagination and the supernatural. We can take the explanation that it’s just a dead branch, or you can believe it’s the will of the father. I don’t really believe in reincarnation but who knows!
The book is written from Simone’s point of view why did you decide to incorporate the mother much more in the film? I wanted to have a balance and a double point of view. If you have a double point of view you can have doubt; with just the girl’s point of you you are obliged to believe what she believes.
Why did you choose to adapt the script yourself and how did you find the writing process? It was funny when I discovered the book, an Australian producer already had an option on it, so I asked if she wanted to do a co-production. We waited for the first draft from an Australian writer but I made my own version after that. The movie became very close to me as I had a big loss in my life and after that I wanted to put a lot of myself into the film.
Why did you cast Charlotte Gainsbourg? At the beginning we wanted to have an Australian woman but I didn’t find the one. I thought to have a foreign mother in the story would be great because she is alone in the country with no family, so it was more difficult for her. I love Charlotte Gainsbourg so I was very happy she accepted. It was her first role as a mother, and now she has her own children too so it felt right.
You capture the randomness of childhood so well, it didn’t seem scripted at all. How did you achieve the level of realism in the film? It was a big challenge to cast the children. We saw so many. We were very lucky to find Morgana Davies, it was her first movie. You have to respect the childrens’ needs, sometimes they are tired or bored and you have to deal with that. So I thought it would be nice to have all the children on the set; my children, Charlotte’s children, the producer’s children and the crew’s children. Normally on movies when you have children it’s a problem because it’s so difficult to organise but with this it really helped.
How do you feel when you watch the film now? It was so difficult to do but we did it! It was a huge adventure. I find it moving to watch now, but it’s not my film anymore, it’s an interpretation. I like hearing other people talking about it now and hearing their views, I’m happy it can be shared.
The Tree is out on 5th August.