“It was like falling in love. We spent two years in total with five people looking, and then when we saw it, I knew straight away. It was like another character to me. When you find the right actor, you are very excited because you know you have a lot to do together.”
Julie Bertuccelli, writer-director, describes her first reaction to spotting the enormous Moreton Bay Fig Tree that is at the emotional heart of her film. The Tree, which received a seven-minute standing ovation when it was the closing film at Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, tells the story of a happy family who live in a small Australian. Their lives are shattered with the sudden loss of father Peter. Widow Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is isolated in her grief and welfare of her three children, one of whom, Simone, takes solace in the tree and the messages it whispers to her.
The book on which the film is based – Our Father Who Art in the Tree, by Judy Pascoe – dealt with bereavement solely through the little girl’s eyes, but Bertuccelli was determined to widen the story.
“It’s a story about freedom,” she explains from her home in rural France, “and the possibility of looking at grief in many different ways. I wanted to show how grief, although awful, can give you something in your life. If you choose, you can be stronger than before.”
The film, which is a joint French-Australian production, was shot in the harsh terrain of Queensland, north-eastern Australia, giving Bertuccelli a fresh respect for those who choose to live at the mercy of the elements which, on screen, ultimately threaten to destroy the family and their home.
“I like the people in Queensland, they are very strong,” she explains. “The country is dangerous, with the storms, the sun, the rain, the people there know they can't decide everything, and they respect the elements around them, so every day is a gift.”
The Tree gained an extra dimension when Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of Serge and Jane Birkin) came on board.
“Because it was an Australian story, I thought we'd have to have an Aussie,” remembers Bertuccelli. “I didn't find her, so we came back to the idea of a French mother, who would be alone in the country. Exile and grief can be the same in many ways, you are alone and you have to build something new.
“I thought Charlotte would be too young to be a mother of four, but by the time we got her, she’d matured and brought so much to the role and the film, never overplaying the melancholy. She is so sensitive – a big presence without overdoing anything. She was another miracle for me, just like the tree.”
And before nature-lovers prepare to get indignant as the story’s twists threaten the tree’s welfare, were any trees actually harmed in the making of this production, particularly the one of the title, reported to be approximately 130 years old?
Not at all, says Bertuccelli. As she puts it in her charming lilting French, “I was the protector of the tree from the beginning, nobody was allowed to break even a branch. It was my little trick.”
The Tree is in cinemas from Friday 5th August.