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Die Eiche / Heart of Oak

Directors: Laurent Charbonnier, Michel Seydoux (France). Year of Release: 2022

The countryside in the middle of a storm. A gale force wind surges through the branches of a 200 year old oak tree. The inhabitants of the tree take cover. Various birds and rodents dash for safety. Insects rush around the ground. Some mice head beneath the earth’s surface where they are almost swept away by the subterranean streams. But all storms come to an end and eventually, after a lot of footage, the rain stops and the creatures return to whatever they were doing.

There is no dialogue in Die Eiche. We just watch the forest and its inhabitants through the lens of a camera. There are some special effects – the end credits list different people responsible for SFX, VFX and simple FX, but mainly we just watch animals running about. Usually, they are silent. Sometimes they are accompanied by music which someone has deemed appropriate – Dean Martin singing Sway, for example, or a big band playing In the Mood.

The trouble is, though, that Die Eiche gives us a very sanitized view of nature, which is shown not so much red in blood and claw, as bathed in the back-light of the camera assistant. There is nothing here to scare the small kiddies who may have been brought by over-zealous parents. On occasion, a snake, or a frog, may look as if they’re going to do some damage to one of the creatures with whom they are sharing the forest, but the threat disappears long before things get dangerous.

Maybe France has fewer nature programmes than I experienced as a kid, but there was little here that you couldn’t see on British tv decades ago. The lack of dialogue of even of a narrator giving you a friendly prod about what was going on, meant that we just saw an hour of twenty minutes of animals gambolling in the wild. There was no sense of motivation or plot development. They just did what they did until it was time for the camera people to pack up and go home.

We did see some changing of seasons and the time, for example, as the sun dropped and shadows started to appear. But these changes didn’t represent much. The film was not going anywhere. Not that it had to, of course, but I felt that just sitting back and watching the animals was somehow insufficient. Maybe I’ve just been David Attenboroughed out. Not only am I not a great fan of nature films, I’ve also seen enough of them not to be desperate to see any more.

This is not to say that this is a terrible film, far from it. Much of nature is both exciting and beautiful, especially to those who lived less rushed lives than mine. And a lot of the film’s photography is superb. For the people who like this sort of thing, I’m sure it’s boundlessly impressive. But the anthropomorphic attempts to depict animals getting on with their lives while dance music blares in the background just felt to me like it was trying too hard with a tired idea.

You might think there’s not a film’s worth of material in there, and you may be right – even taking into account that the film is only 80 minutes long. I think the main purpose of the film is to enthuse children about the wonders of nature, but the young girl in the row in front of me was restless throughout, and ended up dancing in her chair, hands in the air and eyes fixed anywhere but the screen. But she wasn’t as loud or persistent as her mother, telling her why all this was important.

I’m with Anarchist Kid, but there will be many people for whom most of my criticisms will be irrelevant – they just want to see some well-filmed woodland animals. If you’re one of those people, well this may be just the film for you. Die Eiche is a film which is extremely good at what it does, so whether or not you enjoy it depends an awful lot on whether this is the sort of thing which gives you pleasure. Which is a backhand way of saying, I hope you enjoy it.

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