Going in a Good Direction

Filmmaker Julie Bertucelli talks about the roots of 'The Tree'

The Tree (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Tree
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the highlights of the 26th Haifa International Film Festival, which ends on September 30, was a sold-out screening of Julie Bertucelli’s drama The Tree. The film, which was the closing attraction this year at Cannes, tells the story of Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a mother of four who is suddenly widowed in rural Australia, and whose young daughter believes her father’s spirit has taken residence in a huge tree in the family’s yard.
The film, which opens this week in theaters throughout Israel, stood out in a festival filled with hundreds of acclaimed films because, in spite of its doursounding premise, it is an extremely lively, vivid film, populated with appealing characters. The children in the film, struggling to cope with their depressed mother and an indifferent universe that has suddenly taken away their father, give especially memorable performances.
So it should come as no surprise that Bertucelli is pregnant with her third child. As she eats breakfast in Haifa just before heading out for a tour of Jerusalem, she refers to her unborn child as “my next project” and says that she had taken time off with each of her children. “Sometimes you want to live a little,” she says.
But she took on the logistically complicated film, The Tree, based on a novel by Judy Pascoe, because “I wanted to make a story with a tree. It was a kind of obsession.”
She considered filming an Italo Calvino book that revolved around a tree; but when that project fell through, she found the Pascoe novel and fought hard to direct it.
Since the book was not that well known outside of England and Australia, “I felt free to adapt it. The condition the author gave was that it must be in English and be filmed in Australia. And I thought Australia was a good place for it.There, nature is so huge. You feel small and you are at the mercy of the elements. There are dangerous animals there. The whole dimension of nature is bigger there.”
Bertucelli, who has directed several documentaries, first moved into feature films with the highly acclaimed Since Otar Left (2003), about a Georgian family coping with the loss of an adult son. She acknowledges the similarity of themes between the two films, saying, “I learned with Otar that the closer you are to reality, the more the story is universal.” Given the success of her first film, Bertucelli admits she was nervous about the proverbial sophomore jinx. “It was stressful. It’s always stressful to make a second film. I told Yael [Fogiel, her Israeli/French producer, who accompanied her to Haifa], I promise my third film will be good.”
But she needn’t have worried about her second movie. “The Tree is the opposite of Otar. It’s at the opposite end of the world. You have the kids, animals, visual effects.”
Casting and working with the children was delicate and demanding, especially the part of Simone, the eight-year-old who doesn’t want to see her mother move on with her life.
“It’s difficult working with children,” says Bertucelli. “It’s like being a parent. You can’t be too harsh. You have to push them, but you can’t push them too much.”
But she managed to find the balance because Morgana Davies as Simone gives one of the most gripping performances by a child in recent memory. In spite of the sadness in the story, “many children who have seen the film enjoyed it.It’s very moving for me.”
Although Bertucelli has managed to combine motherhood with a successful career in directing, she realizes that she is the exception and is concerned that women are still underrepresented in the film industry. “There was no woman in competition at Cannes this year, and on film festival juries there is usually just a nice actress,” she says. But with Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win for The Hurt Locker this year, “We are going in a good direction. ”
Given the subject of The Tree, Bertucelli says, “People will say it’s a women’s film. But it’s just my film.”