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New Release Review - THE BUTTERFLY TREE

THE BUTTERFLY TREE review
A cancer battling burlesque dancer impacts the lives of a father and son.







Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Priscilla Cameron

Starring: Melissa George, Ewen Leslie, Ed Oxenbould, Sophie Lowe, Ella Jaz Macrokanis

THE BUTTERFLY TREE poster

What a movie! The Butterfly Tree is one of the most joyous and compelling experiences I have had watching a film all year. Beautifully written and realised, Priscilla Cameron’s Australian melodrama stars Melissa George as Evelyn, an ex-burlesque dancer who strikes up a sweet friendship with young Fin (played by Ed Oxenbould, that geeky kid in The Visit a few years ago), and -eek! - also enters into a tentative relationship with Fin’s dad, Al (Ewen Leslie). Matters are intensified when it transpires that father and son are still suffering the loss of wife/mum Rose, and, as the film continues, we realise that Evelyn could well have complications of her own…

THE BUTTERFLY TREE

The revelatory structure and narrative turns of The Butterfly Tree are so impressive, so imperative to this film’s manifest achievements, that they entail close appraisal. So, before we begin climbing this particular tree to the very top, please be warned that after this paragraph we are going to be in spoiler territory, and you do not need this film ruined. What you do need to do is see it, as soon as you can. Take someone you love; a friend, a family member, partner, pet; have a good old cry with them and be thankful to the gods of cinema and fortune that you shared this experience together. Acting is superb, film looks incredible, and the plot is utterly captivating. An absolute gem: go!

The Butterfly Tree’s striking visual style is inaugurated by the film’s bravura opening sequence, which simply features George, draped in a cape that resembles butterfly wings, performing a burlesque in colours of thick yellow and indigo (the colours of this film, man. Douglas Sirk would be proud). Even though burlesque is predicated on sexual titillation and the representation of seduction, it has always been a more playful, triumphant practice than the seedy strip-tease. An accentuation and celebration of the female form and its sinewy dynamism, this particular dance ends with George shaking her tits at us, tassels a-whirling, George beaming: a woman enjoying her beauty and confidence. It’s not hard to see why little Fin (who I am guessing is about 15 here) falls for her. Prior to Fin and Evelyn meeting, we see a magic-realism inflected flashback sequence of his mother, of her and Fin in a woodland garden where cobalt blue morphos flutter the air like confetti. Evelyn is a florist, and thus Fin’s first encounter with her involves purchasing flowers for his mum’s shrine. Yes, it is completely Oedipal, but in a way that is never icky, and instead innocent and lovely and sad (Evelyn cannot ever be Fin’s mum, or, indeed, a sexual partner for him). Evelyn gives Fin a camera, and they pose and play in her cavernous greenhouse, butterflies swelling the air.

THE BUTTERFLY TREE

Across town, Dad is a jaded teacher, who has affairs with his students and various other women in order to confront the impotence which, the film implies, has beleaguered him on and off since the death of his wife. Soon, inevitably, he falls for Evelyn too. And who can blame him: she’s beautiful, full of beans and has a zest for life that could lift him out of the doldrums, etc etc. What is fascinating, however, about The Butterfly Tree is the knowing way in which it reworks the trope of manic-pixie-girl. For starters, Evelyn is most definitely a woman, and moreover, her flights of fancy are eventually reconfigured as an aspect of her terminal cancer. She is dying, and she doesn’t exist as an archetype geared to bring father and son together, but as a human being breathing the last gasps of time she has left on earth.

Alongside the butterfly motif (the culmination of which is heartbreakingly beautiful: a reassurance that death is not the end but is instead just a painful and necessary change of state), the other motif of the film is breasts, to be more specific, Melissa George’s breasts. I’ve always been a huge fan of George, mainly for her solid, underrated work in horror (but also, on a personal level, because she reminds me of my lovely sister), and here, again, she is incredible and entirely devoted to her role. We see Fin spy on Evelyn while she is in the bath, fully in the buff: but Cameron films this sequence with a spectacular eye. The point is not the nudity, but Fin’s woozy appreciation of it; after all, he is a kid, and this is perhaps one of the most beautiful women in Australia. So, there is no play to the male gaze here, Cameron is simply displaying what a woman looks like, and not without thematic purpose. When Fin develops the photo reel inside her camera, it turns out that there are a few private and gorgeous close ups of Evelyn on there too, the pulchritude of which is ultimately and candidly contrasted later on by gruesome, screen filling close-ups of her mastectomy scars.

THE BUTTERFLY TREE

Before it swallows you, cancer eats away: at character, the soul, and eventually the body. In the third act of the film, Evelyn suddenly wilts and decays like one of her precious flowers when the season changes. Her sexual identity, vibrant and confident and all but invulnerable, is the first casualty. There is wise subversion in Cameron’s storytelling: while Fin and Al may wish, from their clear distance, Evelyn as a potential saviour, The Butterfly Tree underlines the selfish absurdity of such a projection. How can Evelyn bear the responsibility for a messed-up bloke and his bereft son when she has her own individual life and death to administer? This is an actual woman, flesh and blood, not the childish students that Al knocks about with (one of whom is portrayed with a particular comic brilliance by Sophie Lowe, whose presence deserves a mention). The Butterfly Tree ends with a relieving flight into cliché; the presence of which is welcome as the alternative would be too much to bear. We are left with an unlikely tremble of optimism vibrating through the weight of real life, with a happy ending open to an interpretation entirely reliant on our own personal level of hope.  Graceful as a butterfly, this film also stings like a bee. Superb.

The Butterfly Tree is on UK/ROI cinemas July 13th.



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