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Julie Bertuccelli: The Tree

We talk to the French director who cast Charlotte Gainsbourg as a single mother striving to overcome loneliness and grief in the Australian outback

The Tree is the second film from French director Julie Bertuccelli and features Charlotte Gainsbourg as a recently bereaved mother struggling to stop her family falling apart in the Australian outback. Released in cinemas on these shores this week, and based upon a best-selling Australian novel of the same name, it’s a touching meditation on the loneliness of grief that employs the metaphor of nature to explore our relationship to death.

While the family struggle to overcome the loss of the head of the family, the youngest child begins to hear her late father’s voice whispering among the branches of the sprawling octopus-like tree in which she spends most of her time – soon her mother too is clambering among the branches. Bertuccelli has had a career in film that has seen her work with some of the greatest directors of our age, from Kieslowski to Tavernier and her time working as an assistant director to such masters shows in the measured and thoughtful approach she takes to her medium. Here, she discusses why the story of The Tree is one very close to her heart, and why the human mind has an innate desire to create meaning from loss.

Dazed Digital: Why did you choose to centre this story on a French/English mother rather than an Australian one?
Julie Bertuccelli:
It was interesting for me to see the ways in which exile and grief are very closely related. This not-perfect mother is quite alone in this country, and you are always alone when you are in grief, even if you are surrounded by people that care about you. There was a sense of all those sentiments coming into play – of trying to keep the roots and the memory of your country, and the memory of your husband. It was really great to have the French/English mother who is lost, alone and fragile.

Charlotte (Gainsbourg) was perfect because she can seem like a little girl alone sometimes, and then she can seem very strong. There is all this emotion in her performances that you don’t see, but you feel. She has a melancholy inside her that I think she gives to everybody. It’s a great talent but she’s very shy about it – always a little sorry to be as beautiful and charming as she is.

DD: Does the film mirror your own life, in that you suffered a similar loss to her character while making the film…
Julie Bertuccelli:
It’s true that when I started writing the film my husband was ill, but I didn’t think he would die. I was creating stories from the book and looking for ideas, but then suddenly the story came really close to me. After a while, I stopped writing because it was too hard. For some time, I could not write and I was just living alone in sadness, and then something happened to me – the scene at the window where a very thin light falls on the face of charlotte happened to me. It was not exactly the same but it was an idea for the film that came to me in that moment between sleeping and being awake. I knew it had to be in the film.

DD: The film is quite different to the book isn’t it?
Julie Bertuccelli:
Yes, because the book is written from the point of view of the little girl. It’s the girl talking in first person, like a diary. It was great to read it like this, but for the film, I was a bit afraid it had already been done. Also, in the book she was a bit older, like, 12 or 13 years old, and I didn’t want to have a girl that old because I don’t know that your imagination can really play as much as that when you are older. When you are seven or eight, like the girl in the story now, it seems maybe more real because children of that age play alone and they make up the voices of everybody in their head – they really believe in it, and are inside the story. 

DD: The film hints at dreamtime or an aboriginal kind of otherness...
Julie Bertuccelli:
I wanted to have a little bit of that. Aborigines believe that all souls go back in the trees, the water, the rocks and so on. It’s more poetical in the film, though, and the metaphor of the tree is more poetic. It’s not really about believing in it so much, it’s just a beautiful image of the imagination.  I remember when I discovered this tree after two years of survey. The feeling I had for it was so strong. I just got the feeling that the branches on the tree were a little bit like a brain, and that the image of the brain was completely the image of imagination.

DD: There is definitely a sense in the film that the afterlife is what we choose to believe or project, rather than prescribed religious ideas…
Julie Bertuccelli:
The film says nature is like a mirror of our sentiment, because we always want to have an explanation of what has happened by chance – like a branch falling down – and imagine it’s a sign or something, and we always want to find that signification somewhere. I wanted to make a connection with this desire we have in the mind. It’s so strong to want to see things, and we invent a lot of things because we’re afraid to be here – we’re nothing in front of the stars so we need to have an explanation. I wanted to talk about our will to have this explanation and a reason to live.

'The Tree' is out this Friday