Equal parts fable and folly, the second feature from Julie Bertuccelli (Since Otar Left) aims as high as the towering fig tree at its center. Amid its roots, which burst through the drought-hardened Australian soil, lives a family sideswiped by grief. As a wife (Gainsbourg) deals with the sudden death of her husband, her children cope in different ways: Her youngest son goes mute, while her daughter (Davies) becomes convinced that her father's spirit has taken refuge in the tree's ancient form.
Gainsbourg certainly grieves in a quieter (and decidedly nonviolent) fashion here than in Antichrist, though her muted mourning is equally impressive; the terse elegance with which she describes her former life to her eventual love interest---a new boss (Csokas)---is a study in doing more with less. It takes some ungainly dialogue to account for the presence of a willowy Franco-English hybrid in the dusty outback, but as an actor, she's perfectly at home. Even better is Davies as the child who takes temporary residence in the tree's branches, displaying a desperate simplicity of belief that nearly carries the film. But notwithstanding the awe-inspiring wonder of nature in all its glory, The Tree's conceit seems better suited to the page than the screen---or at least Bertuccelli fails to conjure the necessary sense of ambiguous mysticism to justify such a narrative stretch. The movie's mundane account of moving on is ultimately more gripping than its wooden metaphors.
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