thetreeRed lightThe Tree is a maudlin art house drama in which one of its lead characters is exactly that – a tree. But this ain’t just any tree: it’s a gigantic angry fig tree that’s been infused with the spirit of a grieving family’s dead father.

At the beginning of the film Peter O’Neill (Aden Young) dies suddenly, moments before his ute collides with the eponymous character. From then on the tree takes on special albeit glaringly obvious dramatic significance to the loved ones he leaves behind, namely his wife Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their four young children.

For further evidence of the significance of the tree consult the title of the book on which director Julie Bertucelli’s French/Australian co-production is based: Our Father Who Art in The Tree, which sounds like Bob Brown and The Greens endeavored to pen an eco-friendly version of The Lords Prayer.

The story focuses on the O’Neill family as they struggle to move on, the tree providing an endless reminder of their loss. Dawn gets a job and a new love interest but the gargantuan tree continues to grow, like a plant from the universe of Little Shop of Horrors that feeds on bereavement instead of blood.

The cranky neighbour wants it cut down. Anybody with patina of common sense wants it turned into mulch. The family however are understandably reluctant, especially the kids. The audience is caught – or, more accurately, supposed to be caught – between emphasizing with the characters and wanting the tree to be turned into firewood.

The message of the film is obvious: let go of the things that haunt you, lest they take over your life.

Strong production values and a collection of authentic performances – particularly from Gainsbrough, who can maintain her composure through daffy (Antichrist) or dull (The Tree) productions – are not enough to convince audiences that Bertucelli’s uneventful storyline is worth the emotional investment she clearly aspires to generate.

The obviousness of the central concept about the tree and what it stands for would be unintentionally amusing were it not for the grim, day-after-a-wake atmosphere that runs throughout the film. But rest assured that from a certain viewpoint the fig tree debacle can be viewed effectively through the prism of humour.

For example, the closing credits tell us there were five people involved in casting it. Cue joke about wooden performances. The credits also include the comforting words “no animals or trees were harmed in the making of this movie.” That maybe so, but plenty of audiences bums were numbed in the process of watching it.

Bertucelli’s direction keeps the actors on the same page, hitting the right notes, but feels unerringly pretentious. The process of following her dawdling storyline feels long and tedious.

Instead of emotionally investing in the story, I couldn’t help but contemplate what Don Burke would make of this tyrannical tree or how Better Homes and Gardens might go about reporting it.

Not exactly the desired effect.

The Tree’s Australian theatrical release date: September 30, 2010

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey