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BERLIN — A half-century-old secret casts its shadow over a French family in “Family Tree” (“L’arbre et la foret”), rupturing familial ties and damaging its men whether they are aware of the secret or not. This film from writer-directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau is a talk-athon filed with narrative monologues and ruminations about the past. So festivals and art houses are the most likely home for this intimate vivisection of a bourgeois family in torment.
The funeral of the eldest son brings together a clan you have reason to believe are seldom in each other’s company. Estrangements and a divorce keep everyone at arm’s length. Indeed the funeral itself has gone badly, at least in the estimation of younger son Guillaume (Francois Negret), who is scandalized his father chose not to attend.
Instead, Frederick (Guy Marchand) has wandered among the forest he has planted on the estate for his tree-growing business. He spends much of his time listening to Wagner, staring out of windows and keeping to himself.
His wife Marianne (Francoise Fabian) is used to such behavior as is, to a lesser degree, the granddaughter Delphine (Sabrina Seyvecou).
The family’s women, including the divorced wife of the deceased man, Francoise (Catherine Mouchet), and Guillaume’s forbearing wife Elisabeth (Sandrine Dumas), take things more in stride than the men. Perhaps Delphine’s boyfriend Remi (Yannick Renier) may prove the exception.
The secret gets revealed at about the halfway point, and then the film tracks the reactions among family members. It has to do with the German occupation in World War II — the movie takes place in 1999 — and goes a long way toward explaining the disconnect in the father-son relationships within the family.
The cast is very good at not letting emotions overheat into soap opera. The film clearly shows the devastation caused by decades of living a lie, even when few actually realize this is the case.
Yet for all the open space of the estate’s forest, the films feels claustrophobic and a tad repetitive.
The old man listens to his Wagner at high volume, characters stare out of windows, the son gets drunk continually and the women try to calm him down.
The story never strays far from the house or the nearby woods so you feel as trapped as in a movie about a penal colony. In this sense, “Family Tree” is more like a play than a movie.
Contributions by cinematographer Matthieu Poirot-Delpech, production designer Dorian Maloine and, of course, Richard Wagner are all strong but you do get a little stir crazy.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival
Production company: Maia Cinema/Les Films du lendemain
Directors-screenwriters: Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau
Cast: Guy Marchand, Francoise Fabian, Sabrina Seyvecou, Yannick Renier, Francois Negret, Catherine Mouchet, Sandrine Dumas, Pierre-Loup Rajot
Producers: Kristina Larsen, Giles Sandoz
Director of photography: Matthieu Poirot-Delpech
Production designer: Dorian Maloine
Costume designer: Elisabeth Mehu
Editor: Mathilde Muyard
Sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 97 minutes
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