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EIFF 2022 Review: Le Chêne / Heart of Oak – “A reminder of the sheer majesty of our natural world”

Directed by Laurent Charbonnier, Michel Seydoux

A huge hit in France (the programmer introducing it at the 75th Edinburgh International Film Festival told the audience it had sold over half a million tickets at the box office), Le Chêne – titled Heart of Oak for the English-language market – the film made its UK debut at the EIFF this week. And while it is a French film, worry not if you are no good with subtitled films, as this is a “silent” documentary – there is no narrator or dialogue or talking heads experts. Instead, the cinematography and the soundscape carry us through the entire film, essentially a year in the life of a huge, two hundred-year-old oak tree, and all the myriad varieties of life it supports on it, in it, below it and around it, from insects and fungi and wood mice in the roots to birds and squirrels in the branches, deer and boar around it, through the four seasons.

We open with a beautiful aerial shot over a forest, slowly descending through the canopy into a small clearing around a vast, gnarled old oak (the descent is so slow and gentle it gave me the impression of coming down gently in a hot air balloon). It’s spring/summer and the foliage is in full greenery, the huge, thick branches of this old tree covered in leaves, and there’s that marvellous sound of the breeze moving through the branches and leaves (isn’t that just one of the nicest sounds in the world?).

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As the camera moves circle the trees, top, bottom and in-between and around, the camera lingering over the fantastically gnarled, tough bark on this regal tree, and then as we get closer in we see the community of life it sustains. Tiny acorn weevils with their long proboscis giving them a distinctive look, a red squirrel darting around, seemingly defying gravity as it pauses on a vertical climb, face down, leaping and jinking, constantly on guard, looking around for opportunity and danger.

Tiny wood mice who have a colony in tunnels among the roots cautiously stick their heads out while a barn owl scans the area from a high branch, looking for just such an excursion, a mating pair of birds make their home in the oak’s branches, sharing them with the squirrel, the editing of the footage of each giving the distinct impression of an almost human neighbour feeling – not someone you know personally, but like someone whose face you recognise, know they live in your area, the sort you nod to at the bus stop or in the shop. The much larger animals of the forest such as the boars and deer forage around the trunk, the boars using its rough surface for a good scratch while they’re looking endlessly for food.

We move through each of the seasons, watching the animals fight for survival, a whole ecosphere based around this tree, from fungal connections in the earth among its deep roots to the tops of its branches; it is, essentially its own little world that we are visiting here. We see the excitement when the acorns start to drop, especially for the resident squirrel, leaping around to try and grab several then stash them – one it will bury and forget, and by the time the next spring rolls around we see that acorn has started a small root system below the earth, and a tiny trunk – more like a small branch with a few leaves – above ground; the life cycle continuing.

We see the creature and the tree weather the worst of the winter, the preparation for spring, new births, screeching baby birds in a new nest demanding food, the acorn weevils, all died off at the end of the summer and autumn, have implanted embryos into some acorns, which finally wriggle out, burrowing into the ground below to mature into the next season’s group of insects. The whole natural cycle rolls past us in simply stunning footage – including some clever techniques to let us see below the ground, for instance into the mice nest – or to flip momentarily to give an animal’s perspective (as a hawk hunts one of our mating pair of birds from the tree we see the exhilarating rush of the chase from its point of view for a moment.

I think the only main issue I had with this was that the editors seem to have chosen to avoid showing much in the way of any creature being killed – we see a number of attacks and hunts from and on various creatures, but other than a kingfisher catching a small fish, none of the hunts we see are successful. While I know there’s a high failure rate for even the best predators in a hunt, after several of these on screen it felt more like this was a deliberate choice by the filmmakers.

That’s a minor quibble though – in truth, this is a film to cherish in our current world of endless worries and fears over environmental collapse, financial hardship, and warfare. Here’s a reminder to take time out, listen to the sound of branches moving in the wind, remember that the whole natural world goes on regardless of how buried under stress and worry we are (Lockdown reminded me of that very much, walking in a deserted city and hearing the spring birds calling out so clearly with no traffic to drown them out, and it lifted my spirits). This is like taking a “forest bath”, a cleanser, a reminder of the sheer majesty of our natural world, the simple beauty of a tree, and the entire network of life it sustains around and on it. It’s a movie to see on the big screen, and let the visual and sounds immerse you into this tribute to the majesty of our natural world.

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