Skip to content

Michel Seydoux

HEART OF AN OAK (LE CHENE)

(GAUMONT/CAMERA ONE/WINDS/KALEIDOSCOPE ENTERTAINMENT (81 minutes; Unrated); 2022)

There is so much that is rich and wonderful about this French-made nature film that I consider it a miracle that such a film even exists. It’s a “documentary” about the vividness of the natural world that has no narration whatsoever. It has all kinds of creatures scurrying around in its frames but virtually no “cutesy” music to accompany the movement of those creatures (with two minor exceptions). And instead of a panoramic overview of the wonders of Ma Nature that hops from setting to setting, this film focuses on the life within and around a specific tree. Yes, a TREE, in this case a gorgeous 200-plus years old oak tree that serves as the “heart” of the title. Can such a straightforward, unpretentious look at a portion of the natural world make for riveting cinema? Oh, you betcha. This film is a stunner.

HEART OF AN OAK (screen shot)

Although co-directors Laurent Charbonnier and Michel Seydoux obviously had a clear vision of the kind of film they wanted to make, they needed a specially talented cinematographer to zero in on the minute details of this landscape and the critters inhabiting it that would hold an audience’s attention. And they sure found the right guy in Mathieu Giombini, who gives us breathtaking views of insects crawling on leaves, birds huddling together on a high branch or dodging a threat from a watching raptor, red squirrels running to and fro to fetch acorns or do a million other things, and tiny mice in their hidden underground homes, playing, trying to stay warm and watching at every turn for possible danger. Often in nature documentaries, a narrator will tell us what the animals are doing and how remarkable their survival skills are in a possibly unforgiving landscape. There was something so refreshing about watching HEART OF AN OAK and soon realizing there was NOT going to be any narration. Only stunning sequence after stunning sequence, accompanied by mostly subtle, evocative music that is almost always perfect. So we are free, as viewers, to just revel in the colorful and stunning imagery, and let our natural curiosity about, well, all things NATURAL, hold sway. It’s a gift from the amazing French crew that made this movie, and honestly one of the biggest surprises I’ve had as a film buff in a long, long time.

HEART OF AN OAK (screen shot)

The giant oak tree that serves as the primary setting, does not prove to be limiting. We see what is happening in the upper branches of the tree as well as within the roots and below, in addition to the action happening in the general area of the tree, where deer and wild pigs are wandering (not to mention the omnipresent squirrels). We also get to see different seasons and weather conditions, with an extended rain sequence that is incredible. I can’t think of another film in this realm where you see raindrops hitting a patient insect in extreme closeup, or a family of rodents huddling together for warmth half hidden by leaves. There are numerous jaw-dropping sequences, such as a Northern Goshawk trying to make a meal out of a fast-moving Eurasian Jay, zooming after it through the forest like the speeder race on Endor in RETURN OF THE JEDI. I cannot for the life of me comprehend how this segment was filmed. Or how the camera was able to capture a slow-moving Acorn Weevil lumbering along a thin branch, allowing you to study every aspect of this photogenic insect in a way you’ll never get a chance to do in any other forum. And watching competitive mice fight over control of an acorn, like it’s a matter of life and death, conveys natural reality in a far more vivid manner than anything a narrator might say. It is honestly just a genius decision to dispense with narration in this film, meaning that there is no intrusive human voice, save for a somewhat questionable Dean Martin song used to accompany one rather vivid sequence of critters (mostly insects) getting it on and such. It’s sort of comical, I’ll say that. But the overall reaction I had throughout was absolute AWE, at the intense life force happening within and around a magnificent old tree. There are not many films of this “nature” out there, and if you are a lover of the sort of hidden wonders you might sometimes see on a hike in the woods, you’ll adore this movie.

HEART OF AN OAK (screen shot)

The typical action movie will show the names of the stars in the closing credit sequence. I found it absolutely endearing that this film lists the many SPECIES of creatures we see here (yes, I’d been wondering) since they are, truly, the real “stars.” So that includes the aforementioned Acorn Weevil, which deserves some kind of award, the Wood Mouse, the Eurasian Jay, the Great Spotted Woodpecker, the Barn Owl, the Coypu, the badger and many others. The extreme closeups we get of every critter makes for genuinely awe-inspiring views of the secret world we are treated to here. I was never bored; in fact, I felt pure gratitude at the genuinely inspired choices this film makes. It made me even more of a nature lover than I already was. I recommend HEART OF AN OAK with no reservations whatsoever. At a time when we are seeing so much of our natural world destroyed or threatened by climate change. it’s good to have this in-depth, detailed reminder of the powerful mysteries and vital life forms that exist out there closer than we think, wanting only to do their instinctive thing, just as every one of us do every single day. Truly a stunning piece of cinema!