Anyone who has seen Lars von Trier’s disturbing yet majestic exploration into the realm of human grief and suffering Antichrist (2009) may well be able to spot one or two similarities in Julie Bertuccelli’s The Tree (2011).
The film is based around the character of Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her struggle to deal with the sudden death of her husband Peter (Aden Young) as the result of a heart attack while at the wheel of his truck, which ultimately crashes into the enormous tree looming over the family household. In addition to dealing with her own grief following his death, she also has four children to care for, ranging from a toddler to a teenager, who are each handling the situation in their own way.
In many ways The Tree is ultimately a more frustrating piece of work than it is enjoyable. While the performances are essentially flawless, particularly from Gainsbourg and Morgan Davies, who plays eight-year-old Simone, the heavy-handed use of symbolism is, at times, offensively patronising and cliched. With the obvious symbolism of the huge tree next to the house representing the family tree, there are far too many moments, which, with a more subtle hand, may have worked to greater effect. For instance, following Dawn’s first romantic encounter with another man since Neil’s death, an enormous branch of the tree not only crashed through the house, but also land across the bed which belonged to Neil and Dawn.
Furthermore, following the death, there are a number of problems that the roots of the tree are causing to the house, mirroring the upheaval the family are facing with Neil being one of the roots of the family. Hardly imaginative.
It seems the Bertuccelli’s concerns are far too heavily weighted towards supposedly intelligent symbolism as opposed to delving too far into the internal suffering of the characters. Although her visual sensibilities aren’t to be called into question, as the film is beautifully shot, especially in its depiction of the desolate landscapes surrounding the family, its her misplaced direction with regards to the narrative exposition that really let it down.
Whereas Von Trier wasn’t exactly shy of using moments of extreme symbolism in Antichrist, there was still enough character exploration and raw emotion in the performances to pull its audience into the world of the characters. The Tree, however, fails to connect in the same way.
While reaction to Antichrist was deeply divided, with many actively stating their disgust at some of the events played out on screen, I doubt very much that anyone could come away from it with a feeling of indifference. In the case of The Tree, a film also overtly concerned with the same themes of isolation, death and suffering, indifference is the only prevailing emotion I was left with.