Julie Bertucelli’s The Tree, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, closed the Cannes Film Festival a couple of weeks ago before premiering in Australia on Sunday night at the State Theatre as part of the Sydney Film Festival. I’ve been going on about Aussie cinema a lot lately, so it was nice to be present at the premiere of such a noteworthy new Australian film. True, it’s a French co-production, with a French writer/director and an Anglo-French star; but the story, characters, and setting are as thoroughly grounded in Australia as the titular tree.

That tree is a very old, absolutely massive Moreton Bay fig that dominates the rural Queensland countryside for miles and dwarfs the two-story house inhabited by Dawn (Gainsbourg) and her family. When her husband suddenly dies, Dawn is left alone with four kids, and she’s hardly up to the task. A whimsical, irresponsible woman of nearly forty, who has never had a job and has always let others make decisions for her, she is now overwhelmed by grief. As months pass, she retreats into a shell, the household falls apart, and it seems her kids are raising her.

One of those kids, the 8-year-old Simone, becomes convinced her departed father communicates with her through the fig tree. She spends a lot of time nestled in its huge branches, talking to him. Dawn, as childlike as her daughter in many ways, grows to believe the same thing. The reassurance granted by that belief gives her the strength to try and get it together. This involves getting a job and, as it happens, seeing another man (Marton Csokas), which causes a rift between her and Simone. Increasingly Simone retreats to the tree for support and guidance; but the tree seems to have its own ideas.

The overt plot and central conflicts mark The Tree as a chick flick. It’s about family, grief and crisis, and learning to love. But it’s a splendidly abstract, low key chick flick, with a child’s sense of wonder, and beautiful performances. Gainsbourg inhabits a very difficult character with eccentric grace. The young Morgana Davies is superb as Simone. Csokas is all warmth and restrained intensity in the thankless role of the love interest who is, well, not a tree.

Bertuccelli depicts country life in Queensland with a prosaic touch. The house is ramshackle, its inhabitants humble and working-class. The interior design is nothing special; the children wear hand-me-downs. The highlight of the family’s year is driving a beat-up camper van to the beach for Christmas. The dialogue is straightforward and laconic in a classic Aussie way; a lot goes unsaid. All of this is presented plainly, with no effort to make it hip or stylish. As with rural people in real life, what they lack in cool, they make up in the natural beauty surrounding them.

The relationship of people with nature is a central part of the Australian psyche; the untamable wilderness of this land is often a force of reckoning in Australian fiction — characters discover or lose themselves when confronted by its power. The Tree carries on that tradition, but in a way that’s gentle and wonderfully organic. The characters go about their lives, the plot moves forward, but nature has a way of intruding. Some of the best moments in the film are the evocative little encounters with ants, frogs, bats, and jellyfish. The characters are captivated by these interruptions, and so are we, under the quiet spell woven by Bertucelli.

The tree is the main event of course. It’s gorgeously filmed — the luxuriant green leaves and hazy light filtering through its boughs effectively illustrate love and nurturing, and perhaps something more mysterious. The lush sound design helps make the tree a living presence. It intertwines with the characters’ lives, seems to envelop them and the story completely. There’s a little of the magic of Aronovsky’s The Fountain at work here in a more subtle format.

The Tree is a lovely, quiet little story about regular people — and it deserves mass appeal. But Bertucelli ingeniously makes the events of the film seem like a fable or a myth, and she’s crafted a fine new entry in the Australian canon.

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