When it comes to finding the different shades involved in playing grief on the big screen, Charlotte Gainsbourg comes equipped with the big 64-crayon box of Crayolas, complete with sharpener on the back. In movies like “Antichrist” and “The Science of Sleep,” Gainsbourg brings a vocabulary of sadness that matches the Inuit’s alleged repertory of words for snow.
“The Tree” gives her license to mourn up a storm as the widow of a truck driver who suddenly drops dead of a heart attack, leaving behind his wife Dawn (Gainsbourg) and four children of varying ages.
It’s the dead man’s only daughter Simone (Morgana Davies) who becomes the focus of the story — while Dawn can barely get herself out of bed, Simone finds that she can talk to her late father by climbing high up into the branches of the enormous fig tree that’s growing alongside the house.
The movie never disabuses her of this notion, particularly when Dawn starts dating a new man and the tree starts attacking the house from above (a branch crashes into the master bedroom) and below (the roots invade the plumbing).
And if all this attack-of-the-tree business sounds overwhelmingly metaphorical, it often is; the screenplay by director Julie Bertucelli (adapted from a previous screenplay by Elizabeth J. Mars, which was in turn based on the novel “Our Father Who Art in the Tree” by Judy Pascoe) lays it all on pretty heavily, even throwing in an overtly symbolic hurricane in the third act.
What makes “The Tree” feel like a movie about actual people and not just writer’s constructs are the powerful performances by Gainsbourg and young Davies. Their feelings — particularly their pain and their longing for the husband and father they’ve lost — are so palpable that we forgive the excesses of Bertucelli the writer and applaud the way that director Bertucelli (“Since Otar Left”) works with her cast.
Bertucelli takes a page from Australian film classics like “Walkabout” and “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” putting both the wonders and the horrors of the Australian outback — from thumb-sized ants to home-invading bats and frogs to that damn twister — front and center.
And if nothing else, it’s interesting to see a movie whose central, scene-stealing effect isn’t a computer-generated giant robot or orc army, but instead an actual, genuine tree that, according to the closing credits, took around eight people to find. Let’s see you fake one of those, Industrial Light and Magic.