The decades-old secret of a Gallic paterfamilias is at the heart of “Family Tree,” a surprisingly straightforward drama from French helmers Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (“Cote d’Azur”). Composed of elegant widescreen shots that show three generations of a tree-growing dynasty quarreling, drinking and having fancy dinners while Wagner swells on the soundtrack, pic is, at least on the surface, French cinema’s equivalent of a comfy old sweater. March 3 bow in Gaul was OK but not stellar, but good reviews and word of mouth should give it legs both at home and abroad.
This somber and classical family drama marks a departure of sorts for the duo better known for films that tackle weighty issues in surprisingly life-affirming ways (“Funny Felix,” “Jeanne and the Perfect Guy”). But like the light touch of those films, the more serious tone here is designed to make the pic’s true subject, tied to the protag’s past, go down easier with more staid auds.
Frederick Muller (Guy Marchand), a tree grower approaching 80, refuses to attend the funeral of his firstborn son, Charles (Pierre-Loup Rajot), which upsets many of those gathered at the wooded family estate. Muller’s other son, Guillaume (Francois Negret), is appalled and angry, and neither his now-widowed daughter-in-law, Francoise (Catherine Mouchet), nor his granddaughter, Delphine (Sabrina Seyvecou), are quite sure what to make of his bizarre behavior. The only one who remains calm is the old man’s devoted but otherwise sphinx-like wife, Marianne (Francoise Fabian).
Delphine’s loving b.f., Remi (Yannick Renier), has never been to the estate before and serves as a stand-in for the audience as he tries to find his bearings amid the tense family proceedings. But the real bomb only explodes during a boozy birthday dinner, when Frederick reveals the reason for not attending his son’s burial a couple of weeks earlier.
Frederick’s secret, which dates back to WWII, shouldn’t come as a surprise for auds familiar with Ducastel and Martineau’s filmography. The helmers thankfully refrain from expository flashbacks, keeping everything in the now except for some ill-advised beyond-the-grave appearances from Charles. Encased in the familiar trappings of the Gallic family drama, Frederick’s past becomes just another cross to bear for this family while also highlighting and normalizing a largely neglected part of French history.
Veterans Marchand and Fabian relish their opportunities to shine in larger roles than usual, and their affection and shared history feels real. Of the younger thesps, the Seyvecou-Renier paring is especially noteworthy, though each actor has at least one meaty scene in which to develop his or her character.
The family’s affluence can be inferred from the solid work of production and costume designers Dorian Maloine and Elisabeth Mehu, while lenser Matthieu Poirot-Delpech fluidly captures the wealth both indoors and outdoors, where the family’s many trees literally represent their fortune (a metaphor the directors just about keep in check). Extracts from Wagner’s “Nibelungen” and Mozart further underline the brood’s somewhat unoriginal good taste and respectability.
French title loosely translates as “The Forest and the Trees,” more clearly underlining the idea that some characters don’t see the bigger picture.