If a Tree Falls in the Woods...

The Sound of Trees (Le bruit des arbres)
(Canada, 79 min.)
Dir. François Péloquin, Writ. Sarah Lévesque, François Péloquin
Starring: Antoine L’Écuyer, Roy Dupuis, Rémi Goulet, Willia Ferland-Tanguay
Photo: Christian Mouzard / K Films Amérique

If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Director François Péloquin asks this philosophical question in his stirring dramatic debut feature The Sound of Trees (Le bruit des arbres). This subtle and understated slice-of-life drama gives a relevant portrait of life in rural Quebec as Péloquin gradually reveals an intergenerational story of a family and community on the cusp of change.

The film stars Antoine L’Écuyer as Jérémie, a seventeen-year-old man in Gaspésie, Quebec at the turning point of adulthood and at the crossroads of his family legacy. Jérémie spends the summer working at the family garage and sawmill with his father Régis (Roy Dupuis). Jérémie dreams of a better life, he aspires to fame and fortune, as Péloquin delicately notes with the all the bling with which Jérémie decks himself out: earrings, thug chains, baseball caps, etc. He’s the product of a different generation than his no-nonsense and humble father. Success is materialism to one while the other values wealth of intangible forms.

Péloquin unfolds the summer in a methodical episodic style as Jérémie passes the time doing mundane larks with his friends, like getting high and burning rubber with the car or attacking the shoreline with a potato launcher. The rest of the time, Jérémie helps his father with the work at the sawmill, but he isn’t an especially strong worker. It’s not that Jérémie’s soft, his heart just isn’t in it.

The Sound of Trees envelops Jérémie and his father’s summer in tensions between tradition and contemporary life as metropolitan influence gradually creeps into the tranquil, almost eerily quiet town. English rap lends the only musical notes one hears in the film as Jérémie bobs to beats from the ’hood, while his poser skater style doesn’t come from a natural aptitude for boarding, since he hails from an area replete with gravel rocks or pockmarked asphalt. No, Jérémie knows that life in Gaspésie is not for him. His father, on the other hand, recognizes the alien influence on the youth in the area and blames it on the local drug dealer. Sure, dope’s part of the problem (and Régis isn’t one to scold about drinking and driving), but the bittersweet sadness of the film lies in Dupuis face as the father makes every effort to prepare for his son to continue the family legacy while recognizing the signs that a way of life is seeing its end.

L’Écuyer gives a strong performance as Jérémie and makes for a compelling youth caught between the trap of settling for a life he finds meaningless and the thrilling possibility of escape. The young actor has been gradually proving himself in a handful of films, most recently a strong supporting turn in the FLQ drama Corbo and most notably in his hilarious turn in Philippe Falardeau’s It’s Not Me, I Swear! It’s a mature and understated performance, as is Dupuis’ affectionate turn as Régis. The veteran actor is a stalwart and subtly affecting rock as the father watches his son move away.

In between this father/son story are the roots of the Otis family legacy. Péloquin makes the trees of Gaspésie a life force of the film as beautiful cinematography takes in the scope of the woodlands on the family property. Intimate scenes play out within the trees with branches foregrounding the action and sumptuous Steadicam work moving around the foliage respectfully and delicately. The excellent cinematography by François Messier-Rheault uses long takes effectively and urgently to capture an uncontrived portrait of life that moves with the pace of the trees swaying in the wind, while aerial shots show the changing face of the landscape, mostly notable in the contrast of greenspace and barren woodland that is becoming clear-cut in the name of progress. The titular sound of the trees themselves provides the film’s soundtrack and doubles as a musical score with the aid of the cicadas. The sparse noise is both soothing and unsettlingly quiet: one grasps the appeal of this calmer life for Régis while also appreciating Jérémie’s need to escape to a place with a livelier pulse.

The Sound of Trees sits firmly in a tradition of authentic regional filmmaking with other Québécois films of late like Le démantèlement, Camion, and Wetlands as Péloquin respectfully captures a way of life that endures in pockets of Quebec, but slowly erodes with the changing pace of the times. The film depicts life in the country matter-of-factly—note the scrappy paint job on the family home—and features ample tragedy as members of the community struggle with poverty and the burden of technology that keeps the family farms alive but makes the work a day-to-day gamble. The film is astutely observed and richly symbolic as Péloquin juxtaposes the family dynamics with the shifts in rural life as the younger generation branches away from the old. The Sound of Trees creeps up on you and leaves roots that hold strong.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Sound of Trees is now in theatres from K Films Amérique.