It’s a safe bet that whenever a film opens with a couple merrily basking in each other’s brilliance that very soon one of them will be dead. Sadly, the Oz-set The Tree—by French filmmaker Julie Bertuccelli (Since Otar Left)—kicks off with Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Peter (Aden Young) sharing a hammock, giggling like the well-adjusted marrieds they evidently are. Ten screen minutes later and wouldn’t you know Peter has suffered a heart attack while driving his truck, which comes to a gradual stop against their property’s towering Moreton Bay Fig tree.
Dawn, who has relied on her husband for income, is thus left with an overwhelming brood, none more high-maintenance than 8-year-old Simone (Morgana Davies). She comes to believe that her father can speak through the tree and Dawn, who’s taken to sleeping in and staring into sunlight with eyes closed while sad music plays, is distraught enough to play along. Lucky for them, the tree is sizable enough to bear the weight of multiple symbolism, and soon enough its growth has expanded so that its roots are causing plumbing problems and soon extending to underneath the house itself. That wouldn’t be a metaphor for the trauma of grief literally uprooting one’s life, would it? It would, and it goes father than that, its destruction of their land summoning the arrival of plumber George (Marton Csokas), who might be rugged to take Dawn’s mind off her widowhood.
Truth is, The Tree is neatly divided between preciousness and pleasantly loose. Bertucelli is an overachieving writer but a far better director, and while the screenplay pushes us lest we not catch its symbolism the execution is far more chill. The widescreen frames routinely unfold deadpan; even Peter’s death is played in part as a pitch black joke, complete with Simone on top of his truck as it rolls, ever so slowly, to its end point. Gainsbourg is usually (though by no means always) better as a screen presence than an actress, and her lack of theatrics help underplay that which would otherwise be overplayed. With more scenes like the one where she suddenly ducks under a bar table, all so nosy neighbors don’t spot her day drinking, The Tree might be tolerable.