News Column

A story of men, women and land

July 9, 2013


July 09--BEIRUT -- Once upon a time, it was all about land. True, you might argue that today's tales of high-flying Wall Street corruption and youngsters dying for, or against, the security state are, at root, stories of power centered on real estate and the wealth that gets pulled out of it. The mud of the land used to be as deeply wedged into the hubris of men and women as it was their fingernails. To have land taken from you was akin to having someone ravish your wife.

Take "Shane," a novella much loved by schoolboys for its brevity. The heroic intervention of the lone cowboy is premised on a struggling widow whose homestead is under threat from a lascivious cattle baron.

If losing your land was equated to emasculation, in narrative terms, then having your land divided was something like being dismembered. Some time before "Shane," a noted grain-hoarder named William Shakespeare composed a work upon this theme.

"King Lear," a play much dreaded by schoolboys for its great length, follows the tragic consequences of an ageing king's efforts to secure a comfortable retirement for himself by dividing his kingdom among his three -- ultimately between only two -- daughters.

There is a venerable history of stories about threats to, and dismemberment of, family properties. So there is a sense in which "Le De?mante?lement" (the dismantling), the 2013 sophomore feature of Canadian writer-director Sebastien Pilote, is on solid ground.

Pilote's gambol across rural Quebec tells the story of Gaby Gagnon (Gabriel Arcand), a 60-something sheep rancher who mans the family farm, Gagnon et fils. It's a misnomer since Gaby was the only one of the three Gagnon brothers who kept up the farm. Gaby himself has only daughters.

The film is divided into three chapters. The first bit introduces Gagnon and his farm. His labor is solitary and taciturn -- as he has no reason to talk to either his sheep or dog, and little more to the Bouchard boy to comes around to help a couple of afternoons a week.

Gagnon is divorced and his adult daughters live in Montreal, so what little conversation he has is with his accountant Louis and a widowed neighbor (Dominique Leduc) whose smiling, not unattractive visage crops up with enough frequency to imply a ray of hope in the minor-key tragedy that unfolds over the film's two hours.

The second and third chapters are each named after Gagnon's two daughters -- the elder Marie (Lucie Laurier) and the younger Frederique (Sophie Desmarais).

As "Marie" opens, Gagnon is preparing for a visit from his eldest and her family -- her husband Steve and their two boys. Her visits are rare but she is more present than Frederique.

Steve doesn't come and Marie reveals that they will divorce. The couple has been living beyond its means, it turns out, so she will have to buy out his half of the family house. Marie needs help and, as he owns a farm, Gaby is, she imagines, well positioned to help her.

This sequence is a masterpiece of low-key dramatic tension. Gangon's deeply creased face is only marginally more strained than it has been since the start of the film. Marie's performance requires her to express some emotion, but not so much as to suggest that she has in any sense lost control.

Less than 30 minutes of the film has elapsed and little has been disclosed or developed in the plot, but the moment Gaby promises to help his daughter there is no doubt that some species of doom will befall him.

It is only well after he has embraced that doom that Frederique's chapter begins and she appears to escort him though the proceedings. Frederique is an actor and, in a literate wink to the cognoscenti, Pilote has her sitting on a train reading a script of "King Lear," the page is open on a dialogue between Lear and his daughter Cordelia.

"Le De?mante?lement" had its world premiere during the Cannes film festival's Semaine de la Critique earlier this year, the only North American feature on the roster. It will have its Middle East debut Tuesday evening, screening as part of the Beirut reiteration of Critics' Week.

There is a great deal to admire in this film.

Like many independent features nowadays, there it is a strong documentary quality in "Le De?mante?lement" insofar as its drama is set within the very real decline of the traditional homestead in rural Quebec -- the absorption of family farms by agribusiness being a feature of rural life all over North America.

In this regard, there's no shortage of vignettes filmed during that most depressing time -- the liquidation auction that marks the end of one farmer's battle to keep his farm afloat.

There's much more than cultural anthropology here, however.

"Le De?mante?lement" is beautifully shot. In the hands of DoP Michel La Veaux, this patch of rural Quebec is rendered as rolling hills undulating gorgeously beneath a sky that is at once luminescent and perpetually brooding.

Paired with the understated writing and Arcand's soft-spoken, taciturn manner, the photography makes Pilote's film reminiscent of other works on the international art house scene. If the characters weren't speaking Quebecois (a dialect of rural French transplanted to the Bourbon's Canadian possessions starting in the 16th century) you might be forgiven if you thought it was set in central Anatolia somewhere.

Pilote and La Veaux also make good use of Gaby's flock, finding in the eccentricities of sheep behavior several signposting metaphors. The opening interior shot finds a wobbly newborn lamb standing alone in its pen, while Gaby looks on, his face mingling amazement and curiosity, as though waiting to see if the creature is going to fall over and expire.

Shortly after Marie begs for help (and before Gaby is reminded that she's been taking advantage of him her entire life) the farmer looks on as a lamb jumps up on an adult sheep, presumably its mother, that's lying prone in the barn. It's not a bad metaphor for a specific species of father-daughter relationship.

"Le De?mante?lement" screens at Metropolis Cinema Sofil Tuesday at 8 p.m. (English subtitles). Projections of films from the Cannes film festival's Semaine de la Critique continue until July 11.


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