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« In Which The Tree Is A Mnemonic Representation Of Charlotte Gainsbourg »

Staring Wistfully At Foliage


The Tree
dir. Julie Bertucelli
100 mins

After her husband is murdered by screenwriters, Dawn O'Neil (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has a rough time of it. She finds herself sleeping for most of the day, and blogging at night. She blogs about her kids, mainly her daughter Simone, and how she can't get over her father's death and believes the tree overlooking their home is a representation of her partner from the beyond.

She blogs things like,

I live in Australia but I don't feel Australian. (Neither is true, except in the context of The Tree.)

Sometimes I get myself confused with Charlotte Rampling, because we have the same neck.

Tina Brown's Newsweek may be the most boring thing I have ever read in my life.

Why aren't there any Jews in Australia? Who's the Harvey Weinstein of Australia? Probably some dope dealer.

How come Zooey Deschanel is married to Ben Gibbard and my neck is over eighteen inches long?

the director & her stars

It is a virtual certainty that Charlotte Gainsbourg is better at blogging than acting. No one actually uses the internet in Julie Bertucelli's adaptation of Judy Pascoe's novel Our Father Who Art In The Tree. Set in South Wales, the film's visuals are glorious, so fantastic that I suppose no one feels the need to check HoopsHype all the time. Some people can't stop integrating the internet into their scripted storylines; others make movies as if the internet never existed. What happened to a happy medium? They had to at least have dial-up.

The Tree is another sterling example of a bourgeois actress pretending she's a peon, and succeeding by outdistancing meager expectations. There's a scene where Gainsbourg explains to George, the plumber she's rebounding with, that her mother was French and moved back there, as if we needed yet another moment where we are reminded she is about as far from an impoverished Australian housewife with five kids as you can possibly get. I don't suppose she could have attempted an accent; did you know Reese Witherspoon is secretly British?

Gainsbourg spends the entirety of The Tree playing off some talented child actors who constitute her brood. Her eldest is able to move on from his father's passing; her youngest is a mute. In the middle is Simone, who spends all her time in the tree her father crashed into with his car upon suffering cardiac arrest. Her second son, Lou, waters the tree and it begins to overwhelm the house, starting with a gigantic branch falling into Gainsbourg's bedroom. Affixed to the massive, dangling branch was a tiny note explaining the symbolism.

There is a different logic to how children behave, and when it's interwoven with an adult sensibility, the terror of an unobserved child at risk elevates the stakes. Gainsbourg wants to climb into the tree with her daughter to dangle in the embrace of death, her daughter sees a man o'war in the water and feels the burning desire to go near and feel the painful sting of its touch. In such moments The Tree tells us that our outward behavior may change as we age, but nothing else does.

When George asks Ms. Gainsbourg for the story of her marriage, she tells him that she simply met the perfect man for her and abandoned birth control to the wind. "You're lucky you have your keeds," he tells her, and she nods, indicating how unhappy they make her. Some people never get along great with children, treating them as simply an extension of themselves. This is the second worst thing you can do to someone, after treating them exactly as you do yourself.

When The Tree focuses on its precociously talented child actors, it's a completely different film, taking on the magical realist qualities of the novel on which it is based. Everything about The Tree is altered when we watch people who we believe are incapable of protecting themselves. There is no happy ending for a bereaved widow in rural Australia, but there may be something in the way of hope for her offspring.

Such realizations are obvious in the age of the internet. I think I recently read something similar on AfterEllen. Ideally, Australian housewives would get much guidance from This Recording. We are huge in Australia, and we have at least half of the media market in Tanzania. (TR recommended links comprise the evening news in the far places of the world.) Sometimes a lone drifter will turn to This Recording as he travels the plains of the Outback, stopping only to send me an e-mail asking me if I would like to run his essay about 500 Days of Summer. (The answer is no.)

Instead of a innocent portrait of naive souls, we judge these folk more harshly. Viewing their dirty and cluttered house, most feel envious at how low the price of food must be there. You know you're treading on dangerous ground when poverty becomes close to an ideal. What kind of person watches a movie about a grieving family and feels jealous?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about life after death.

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Reader Comments (7)

i think if charlotte gainsbourg and asia argento ever made a film together they'd create a supernova of cool that would consume the entire culture.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterthusgone

"Affixed to the massive, dangling branch was a tiny note explaining the symbolism." Died. Dead.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkit

I think you mean New South Wales rather than South Wales. Sydney not Cardiff

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersagehoe

Me and Charlotte, separated at birth.



April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTim Lincecum

Ha! But if they had the internet, right, in a film this Heavily Symbolic, the tree would somehow end up being the internet and Charlotte Gainsbourg would make a lousy Na'vi.

(Also: it's not set in South Wales. It's set in Queensland, was filmed in a town called Boonah which is in the south of Queensland, quite near where that state has a border with the state of New South Wales. But no South Wales, South Wales is a part of Wales and way greener and rainier and full of history and consonants than anywhere in Australia.)

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterohbethany

Greetings from South Wales in Australia.
How are things over there in York, Orleans and Hampshire?
Seriously; great and i am doing my bit to spread the word down here, typos are always forgivable.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchris g

I'd like to apologize to the people of Australia for all my inaccuracies. I hope to visit your country very soon.

April 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterAlex

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