There's something about Australian magical realism that's just entirely unlikely any other kind of film, and this holds true, it turns out, when said Australian magical realism is written and directed by a French filmmaker, with a French actress in the lead, and backed by plenty of French money. In short, ladies and gentlemen, I give you 2010's Closing Night film at Cannes, The Tree, which is basically the Aussiest French movie you will ever hope to see, and for that matter the film, adapted by writer-director Julie Bertuccelli from Judy Pascoe's novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree, is in many ways a shining example of the miraculous globalism of the cinema.

Somewhere in rural Australia, under the shade of a giant old fig tree, lives the O'Neil family: Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a French immigrant married to Peter (Aden Young), and their four children - Tim (Christian Byers), in his last year of high school, Lou (Tom Russell), Simone (Morgana Davies), and immaturely pre-verbal Charlie (Gabriel Gotting). All is well and peaceful for the O'Neils until one random day, Peter dies of a heart attack. This plunges Dawn into a crippling depression that leaves Tim in charge of the family's basic survival, while Simone becomes convinced that she can hear her dead father speaking to her from within the tree.

And this is where things might have stayed, in all its miserablilist, Havishamian grimness, except that one day, Dawn wakes up enough to realise she needs to take a job, and finds one as the receptionist for local plumber and handyman George Elrick (Marton Czokas), who with his movie star looks and his blithe ignorance of sexual harassment laws, ends up romantically linked with his new worker in hardly any time. He comes just in time to help keep the house together, literally: the big old fig tree's root system has spread far enough that it is literally starting to damage the O'Neil home. The sensible thing to do, he avers, is to cut the huge monster down altogether; this does not meet with Simone's approval, and thus the lines are drawn between moving forward and paying the proper respect to the memory of the late Peter.

As metaphors go, the titular tree is monumentally unsubtle. I do not know if that is the single most damning flaw in The Tree, or even if it's a "flaw" as such: but it's hella annoying to have a movie that in a great many ways presents the dynamics of a family rebuilding itself with such graceful beauty to pound us over the head with 500 tons of Moreton Bay fig. For by all means, much of the movie works exquisitely well: Gainsbourg's performance is one of the best she's ever given, capturing emotional moods from hellish depression to girlish flirtation in such a way that the whole thing never feels contrived - and the successful handling of Dawn's emergence from the black void where she spends the first act is by far the most contrived and tricky thing Bertuccelli plays out. That it is done so successfully is one of the movie's greatest achievements.

Along with Gainsbourg, Byers and Davies both are called upon to give great, nuanced performances (the other two boys just sort of wander onscreen as needed: four children is more than the story knows what to do with), and both are generally successful; in only her second film role, Davies threads a vitally fine needle, coming across as earnestly, clammily precious, and yet never being too fucking annoying to watch. In fact, she probably has the hardest role to play, or at least the hardest to play well; and she nails it. The state of child actors being as it is, I cannot begin to predict if she'll ever have a career, but one can hope.

Bertuccelli's natural rapport with her actors suits the story extremely well; and so does her elegant use of Nigel Bluck's camera, which is at all points pictorially lovely, and evidences a striking sense of place. The Tree, for all the universality of its themes, has a strong geographical foundation, taking place in a certain spot of a certain country and absolutely nowhere else; a heavy task for a foreign filmmaker to take on, and yet between them, the director and the cinematographer craft an entirely convincing idea of the where of The Tree, and its warm, wet physicality.

And after all this: the script. Bertuccelli's writing is not nearly as effortless as her directing, nor as beautiful, nor as felt: setting aside the cudgel-like symbol dominating the whole thing (inherited from the source material, and driving every second of the plot), the dialogue, and the individual flow of moments, feels oddly crude. The top-shelf acting hides a lot of it; Gainsbourg in particular has grave presence to spare, and she can sell moments much more absurd than she's called upon to save in The Tree. But stripped to its essentials, the scenario strikes me as a calculation, not a work of art, as though it were meant to facilitate an experiment in watching family dynamics that have been, somewhat unnaturally, forced into the situation, rather than gently growing out of the situation (Dawn's romance with George especially strikes me this way: not because a woman would not do so in that situation, but because this woman wouldn't, and a little bit more context and a little bit less rushing to hit the hoary narrative convention of the redemptive lover might have been in order).

A movie doesn't live and die by its script, of course, and The Tree has much to offer: the characters have a wonderful realism that transcends all else, at the absolute minimum. The script does, however, hold the movie at a reserved distance, and what could be an aching study of heartbreak and familial love is... that, but not at all as "aching" as it should have been.