Greg Wetherall


Heart of Oak – first-look review

Laurent Charbonnier and Michel Seydoux spend a year with a magnificent oak tree in this meditation on nature.

As William Blake once put it: “To some people a tree is something so incredibly beautiful that it brings tears to the eyes. To others it is just a green thing that stands in the way.” Trees are such a visceral metaphor for proverb, axiom, and even philosophical debate (let’s not get into the whole tree-falling-no-one-there discussion) that they’re a pancultural icon for the conveyance of concepts and ideologies. Not to mention their literal agency in our ecosystem. A tree of life indeed.

French filmmakers Laurent Charbonnier and Michel Seydoux have moulded a wordless documentary that celebrates their magnificence. Heart of Oak spends a calendar year in the life of a statuesque, 210-year-old oak tree. Sharing a spirit with Viktor Kosakovskiy’s ice-and-water documentary, Aquarela, the result is a hypnotic assault on the senses that captures the beauty and might of our natural world. 

Seasons change, leaves fall, but the cast across 80-minutes stay broadly the same. Birds, mice, and a solitary red squirrel vie for space alongside other mammals and insects. The tree comes across like nature’s very own social – and somewhat anti-social – tenement block. Noisy neighbours bicker incessantly, their cacophony soaked up and subsumed into the rest of the forest.

Although vast sections are thankfully unadorned by soundtrack, Charbonnier and Seydoux deploy some music to accentuate the mood and manipulate emotions. Time lapse photography, innovative camerawork and imaginative editing also play their part. Humour abounds, for instance, when the romantic throb of Dean Martin’s ‘Sway with Me’ accompanies two acorn weevils copulating clumsily in broad daylight.

The imposing oak tree also proves to be not merely a climbing frame, but an observation tower too. A northern goshawk spies a smaller bird from its branches and tears after it in a pulsating chase sequence that would be the envy of a high-end action blockbuster. Nature at its most brutal, devoid of choreography, it’s heart-in-your-mouth and mesmerising.

So too is the sight of creatures parkouring from branch to branch and leaf to leaf. Although a familiar sight to many from David Attenborough’s beloved BBC nature documentaries, shorn of his rich narration, or any narration at all, there is something especially beguiling when the mind is permitted to wander amid the unfolding stories from the forest. 

It might be high praise, but if Vertov were alive and had somehow turned his hands to nature films, you could make a good argument that they would look something like this virtuosic offing. There are no words and yet it speaks volumes. Heart of Oak is impressively executed.

And what do we learn or, at the very least, what are we reminded of? That trees can simultaneously be both a maternity ward and a graveyard; a sanctuary and a battleground; a place where serenity and chaos coexist. 

Published 14 Feb 2022

Tags: Berlin Film Festival Heart of Oak Laurent Charbonnier Michel Seydoux

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