Family Tree (L’arbre et la forêt) (Directors: Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau): Tackling issues of generational manifestations of repressed identity and their repercussions, along with notions of the self as a construct of personal historical signifiers, Family Tree gives a layered, subtle and thoughtful look at three generations of a family built on deceitful, but sincere, intentions. While decidedly different in its allegorical implications, defying the notion of estate as dying legacy and ignoring globalization outright, understandably, it shares stylistic and thematic similarities to Olivier Assayas’s recent masterpiece, Summer Hours (review).
Likewise, this tale of unspoken angst takes place almost entirely at a lush and capacious estate, here surrounded by a family tree plantation. Aging grandparents Frederick (Guy Marchand) and Marianne (Francoise Fabian) Muller plan the division of wealth between their surviving son Guillaume (Francois Negret) and granddaughter Delphine (Sabrina Seyvecou), selling off a portion of their forest to take a trip to the South Pole while they still have time.
Things open with the funeral of Charles, Delphine’s father, which Frederick skips much to the disappointment and rage of other family members. What they don’t know, and soon learn, is that this father and son pairing hated each other, mainly due to a secret that Frederick has long hidden from his family.
In sheer virtue of this film playing at a gay and lesbian film festival, we can guess what that secret might be, but this is less a film about homosexuality than it is about not letting your past, or labels, overtake who you are, or the legacy you’ve built. It shows a dysfunctional but caring family trying to understand each other without having the language, or shared understanding, to do so. And in this, the appeal is universal, whether it is prioritizing inanimate accumulated objects, or esoteric notions of happiness, differing and shared perspectives unite and distance these people with equal gravity.
Some family exchanges can feel a little too on-the-nose and expositional, with Marianne pointing out to her ex-daughter-in-law that she wasn’t entirely a passive victim without a great deal of subtlety, and the parallel of self-hatred in Frederick and Guillaume being all but shown in point form. But this doesn’t hurt the overall effect of a quiet, gorgeously-filmed and well-acted story of finding one’s place in a world constantly categorizing and imposing morality.
If the metaphor of a family tree looming over the family house with slight instability seems trite, this exercise in reclamation and letting go is nothing of the sort, offering a compassionate glimpse at flawed people doing their best to work with what life has offered.