Something about that jawline, a mouth with a default setting of "sulky moue": Charlotte Gainsbourg is an actress uniquely suited to moping, as witnessed by the depressive fugue state she entered into in 2009's Antichrist before Uncle Lars encouraged her to get busy with the scissors. It's precisely this morbid sullenness that the French-Australian co-production The Tree, writer-director Julie Bertuccelli's belated follow-up to 2003's likable Since Otar Left..., seeks to tap into, and arguably indulges: when one character tells Gainsbourg's mournful mum Dawn "Get a life... it's like you enjoy this," he immediately marks himself as the bad guy of the piece, and it's typical that Dawn should also be mother to a child whose first words turn out to be "I don't wanna die". (Keep a close eye on those safety scissors, kid.)
Dawn has earlier been widowed, in the very first reel, when her hunky hubby had a heart attack and parked his truck in the roots of the sprawling fig tree that stands adjacent to the family's property in the Queensland countryside. The bulk of Bertuccelli's film sets out to measure the reactions of the surviving family members to this loss: while the teenage eldest son (Christian Byers), seeing off the last of Dad's whisky and re-recording his answerphone message, expresses a blithe desire to carry on regardless, daughter Simone (Morgana Davies) claims she can speak to her father from the tree's upper reaches, as though the deceased's soul were a plastic bag that had somehow got snagged there. That's troubling enough, but you really start to worry when a stray branch crashes through Dawn's bedroom window, and she curls up alongside it, as if back in her beloved's arms.
Adapted from Judy Pascoe's rather arch-sounding novel Our Father Who Art in The Tree, this is clearly intended as a time-is-a-healer movie, studying a process of growth and renewal, and while the result isn't entirely without truths, it makes for slow viewing: we're basically being asked to spot the kids' hair getting shaggy, the leaves turning brown, the house falling into a state of disrepair. (The youngest, clad in a skeleton costume that might be said to be a poor wardrobe choice, given the circumstances, is seen running amok on the masonry with a hammer.)
The Tree is strong on place, the work of a directorial sensibility visibly relishing the possibilities presented by a particular location: the landscape beyond the family's backyard is adroitly filled in with criss-crossing railway tracks and young boys on bikes whose presence prompts Dawn's less open-minded neighbours to worry about a spike in the crime rate. An assistant director to Krzysztof Kieślowski among others, Bertuccelli stocks the film with the "signs of life" her sometime mentor was always alert to: a crack of light in the curtains, toads in the toilet bowl, and - on a beach trip for which the ascetic Pole probably wouldn't have signed up - giant, pulsing jellyfish.
The Kieślowskian God's-eye view is faithfully replicated (while simultaneously updated to the 21st century) in one shot of the house as seen from Google Earth; the force majeure of a finale looks pretty familiar while we're at it, too. Hard not to think of another master while watching it: the message of The Tree - that nature always finds a way, and that humanity must be prepared to adapt, or perish - isn't (like the title) so very far removed from Malick's The Tree of Life, although the latter is unarguably a much bigger picture: though director of photography Nigel Bluck fills Bertuccelli's widescreen frame with striking and beautiful images, it's telling some of the thematic resonance should have to be carried by news footage of bushfires and cyclones.
A certain earthiness keeps it grounded - a film of blocked drains and farts in the bath, it's full of those inconveniences that bubble up whenever we least need or expect them - and it's actually a more complete vehicle for a nervy and (up to a point) relatable Gainsbourg to work her way through the various stages of grief than was the cut-to-the-quick provocation of Antichrist. Perhaps a tad predictable in spots - Dawn's new boss (Marton Czokas) is all but an identikit hubby, right down to the length of his designer stubble - its disparate elements and influences nevertheless keep it weirdly distinctive: imagine Three Colours Blue done as a superior afternoon TV movie.
The Tree opens in selected cinemas from Friday.