After the sudden death of her father, eight-year-old Simone (Morgana Davies) shares a secret with her mother Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She’s convinced her father speaks to her through the leaves of her favourite tree and he’s come back to protect them.

But the new bond between mother and daughter is threatened when Dawn starts a relationship with George (Marton Csokas), the plumber, called in to remove the tree’s troublesome roots. As the branches of the tree start to infiltrate the house, the family is forced to make an agonising decision. But have they left it too late?

Roots of family's loss exposed in family tree.

On May 23, the day after 13-year-old Jordan Romero became the youngest person ever to summit Mt. Everest, thanks perhaps to one of his good luck charms — a pair of kangaroo testicles presented to him by a friend who has cancer — a less portable yet iconic piece of Australia was introduced to closing night audiences at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival in French writer-director Julie Bertucelli's The Tree.

The title character — a tentacular Moreton Bay fig tree — grows beside the modest but cosy house on stilts shared by Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her husband Peter (Aden Young) and their four children somewhere in rural Australia.

Peter supports the family by driving a truck, seen in arresting opening shots as it transports a fully built and uprooted house through distinctive Australian landscapes. Before we get to know Peter much, except as an obviously decent, hard-working fellow, he is felled behind the wheel by a sudden heart attack. His truck comes to rest against the tree dominating the yard.

Dawn grieves for months, sleepwalking through tasks and chores. Gainsbourg convincingly portrays Dawn's game efforts to soldier on while wondering what the point is now that her beloved mate is gone. The children — two adolescent boys, one girl and a three-year-old boy — cope, each in their own way. Eight-year-old Simone (Morgana Davies in a sit-up-and-take-notice performance) believes that her dad's spirit has taken up residence in the tree. Simone spends happy hours in its expansive branches, convinced she can converse with her late father.

In her second film after her affecting debut Since Otar Left, Bertucelli establishes a tone that balances the workaday (cranky neighbours, remembering to buy food and eat it) with the supernatural prospect of a onetime father and spouse's spiritual essence somehow living on in a tree that happens to grow beside everything he most loved when still in human form.

Headstrong Simone is so matter-of-fact in her acceptance of her dad's alleged new form that Dawn also finds herself nestling in the tree's branches in search of solace. Is this an ecological way around the finality of death or the compound denial of people who perhaps spend too much time in the sun?

Transplanted European Dawn (of French and British stock, like Gainsbourg herself) admits she's never held a proper job, having gone straight into motherhood after marrying a man who made a good enough living to support them all. Months after her husband's death, Dawn starts to work for a good-humoured plumber named George (Martin Csokas), who takes a shine to her grieving-yet-functional persona.

George is obviously a good man, but Simone considers her mother's new working friendship to be a fundamental betrayal. The tree seems to weigh in on the matter, too.

Designed and shot with thoughtful flair, the film's visuals reinforce the odd tale every step of the way. People who hand out awards for performances by animals must consider the bat that flies into Dawn's kitchen — although the viewer knows they’re watching a strip of celluloid projected onto a flat screen, he can be forgiven for thinking that wayward nocturnal mammal might graze his face in the dark.