The redoubtable Charlotte Gainsbourg emerges unscathed from Antichrist, Lars von Trier’s 2009 succès de scandale, as the pointedly named Dawn O’Neil, a newly widowed mother of four, in The Tree. French filmmaker Julie Bertuccelli’s Australian drama has more to say about mourning than the similarly named The Tree of Life and has jellyfish to boot.
After Dawn’s husband, Peter (Aden Young), dies from a heart attack that sends his truck hurtling into an enormous, ancient fig tree next to the O’Neil residence, Dawn retires to bed as the dishes pile up. Her precocious 8-year-old daughter Simone (an assured performance by newcomer Morgana Davies), who was in the truck when her father died, seems to be dealing with the loss just fine.
“You can choose to be happy or sad,” she tells her best friend. “And I choose to be happy—and I am happy.” Isolated in an exurban development in the middle of nowhere, and with only nominal support from the neighbors, Dawn can’t get the kids to school, and there are bats in the kitchen and frogs in the toilet—just two of the hazards of outback homesteading.
Then Simone, who seemed to be OK, becomes convinced her father is talking to her through the tree. She coaxes her mother out of her bed and up into the tree, and Dawn begins to spend her nights in its branches, smoking cigarettes and talking to her dead husband.
Eventually, she heals enough to go out and get her first job and begins a tentative romance with her handsome boss George (Marton Csokas)—who is also the plumber she called to remove those frogs from the toilet.
When the first stirrings of attraction surface between the new couple, a heaving branch smashes right through her bedroom.
What could be played for anthropomorphic horror—and probably has been in Japan or Korea—in the hands of Bertuccelli (Since Otar Left), working from Judy Pascoe’s 2003 novel Our Father Who Art in a Tree, is eerie but explicable (if you’re the type who requires explication).
In this surreal desert setting, plants bloom like alien life-forms, and animals, equally strange and recalcitrant, refuse to be uprooted by the relentless march of development.
Simone’s eyes reflect the real horror, as she watches the man who is replacing her father saw to pieces the thick branch that fell on her mother’s bed—a symbolic castration if there ever were one.
Thirsty from drought, the tree’s roots continue to spread at a daunting pace, strangling the neighbors’ plumbing and sending vines around the house, blooming with red flowers.
When it’s time for the tree to go, Simone climbs onto it again, a contemporary Julia Butterfly Hill, refusing to let George’s men chop it down. By the time a major force of change hovers on the horizon, it just might be the uprooting this family needs.