Between Mourning and Melancholia: Charlotte Gainsbourg in The Tree
In the middle of night, on a rural property on the outskirts of a remote Australian town, a 30-something woman slips out from her dilapidated house and climbs an imposing Moreton Bay fig tree. High in the canopy, the air is thick with the sound of cicadas, wind chimes and the gentle breeze in the leaves. Without warning, there is an eruption of fireworks nearby. The woman stares up into the branches as bursts of brilliant colour light up the sky and cast a red hue over her pale face. The shadows of the gently swaying branches pass across her body. She tentatively steps onto the platform of a tree house landing. Coloured lanterns are strung up around the branches behind her. She kneels, cranes her long, swanlike neck upwards, her eyes searching, and then in a soft voice says, "Speak to me." And so, her communion with the eponymous tree begins. It is a strange, haunting image made even more so by the fact that it is Charlotte Gainsbourg in the role of Dawn, a grief-stricken mother of four whose husband, Peter (Aden Young), recently died unexpectedly. The following morning, in the cool early light, we find Dawn asleep, cradled in the curve of a thick root of the tree, covered in a loosely woven blanket of leaves. It is as though she is enveloped within its embrace.
If the tree has become the home – or even the embodiment – of the father-husband, then homes and their incarnation and (dis)placement have already been defamiliarised in the opening credit sequence. In this sequence, we see an old weatherboard house being relocated on the back of a truck. Inside the moving house, Peter walks through the hallway to the open front door which shows a scenic vista in motion. The powder blue sky and sun-bleached, scrubby ground of the central-west Queensland desert pass him by as he stands stationary in the doorway.
Another uncanny and arresting image is that of Dawn sliding into bed next to a large tree branch that moments earlier crashed through the bedroom window – a sort of reprisal for her burgeoning romantic involvement with her new boss George, the local plumber. In this shot, Dawn carefully arranges herself under the twigs and smaller branches and lovingly contemplates and caresses the deep green leaves. A cut to a crane shot filmed through a hole in the corrugated iron roof shows Dawn asleep amid the foliage.
Upon its release, critics generally agreed that The Tree (Julie Bertuccelli 2008) was visually impressive, although the symbolism was often considered too heavy-handed. The casting of Gainsbourg in the lead role and her acting style met with mixed reaction. Laura Kern describes every frame as "exquisitely composed" but Gainsbourg's performance as "awkward," arguing that the actor is "not at her most comfortable (delicacy isn't exactly her strong suit)."1 Peter Bradshaw claims that, "with her low, musical, murmuring voice, Gainsbourg gives the kind of performance you suspect she can do standing on her head. Her final lines are irritating beyond belief."2 Robert Koehler praises Gainsbourg's "fine, unshowy performance" which "anchors a well-paced narrative" arguing that it is her "total involvement in this woman's tragedy that makes the central drama work as well as it does."3 Lisa Mullen praises the "stupendously beautiful moments" of the film but remarks that Gainsbourg "wavers too much between earth mother and doormat to be completely convincing."4 Francesca Davidson argues that The Tree "retains the style and pace of other Australian films about family and grief set in the country," citing The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan, 1987) and Romulus, My Father (Richard Roxburgh, 2007) which involve "beautiful landscape shots of the bush, a minimal script, ... and a considerable focus on detail as a way of slowing the pace."5 However, while acknowledging that Gainsbourg does not give "a bad performance," Davidson argues that the casting of the French actor "doesn't sit altogether comfortably, … particularly in terms of relevance to the story."6 The relevance of casting Gainsbourg can perhaps be traced back to director Julie Bertuccelli's own experiences of the Australian landscape:
As a French director looking at this country from a distance, I find several advantages to setting this story in the Antipodes (as is the case in the book), in this scenery far away from France, from home, from me. The southern hemisphere, the opposite side of the world, different culture, vegetation, climate, habitat, so many differences which enrich the tale and highlight its universality. The process of mourning is akin to going into exile, to tearing one's self away from the other, from a part of one's self. It is a journey one must undertake to willingly part from the other while keeping him within, as an exile trying to maintain internal contact with his or her roots. Therefore, I found it was important to me to go and tell this story far away from home.7
There is a definite Proustian feel to the way the tree as object shudders with the spirit of the father-husband. However, unlike Proust's concept of involuntary memory, in which the object suddenly yields up this spirit independent of the will of the subject, it is Dawn who directly addresses the tree, who asks it to return the past to her. Ultimately, however, the logic of the narrative is not Proustian but Freudian. The Tree is a complex film suspended somewhere between melancholy and mourning, between the denial of death (this suspension is literalised in the makeshift tree house Dawn's daughter constructs amidst the branches) and its acceptance. This is the true meaning of exile in the film: Dawn finds no home in either mourning or melancholia. The affair she begins with the local plumber is just that, an affair, while the transmogrification of the father-husband's spirit into the watchful and vengeful tree denies Dawn sanctuary in the house of mourning. In the final scene, when the family is shown hurriedly leaving the now destroyed house, there is a strong sense not of moving on but of flight; Dawn is on the melancholiac's great quest for denial, to find another tree, far from everything that is likely to remind them of what happened.
When Bertuccelli wanted Gainsbourg for the role, she was perhaps thinking of this suspended state, between melancholy and mourning, which is part of the actress' emotional repertoire. It is a strikingly similar role to that of 'Her' in Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009) and of the grieving mother in Wim Wender's Every Thing Will Be Fine (2016), which says more about Gainsbourg as an actress than it does about the characters she plays. In other words, there is, or must be, something in Gainsbourg's acting style that justifies her appearance in these roles. Perhaps it was the sudden death of her own father and the complex and overdetermined nature of their relationship (Serge Gainsbourg as father-husband) that Gainsbourg brings to the screen in such roles. And it is perhaps here where the choice of Gainsbourg becomes most apparent. If we conceive grief, as Bertuccelli does, as a form of exile, then to have Gainsbourg as a foreign body in the Australian landscape makes this exile doubly felt.