Landscape of Tragedy

Wetlands (Marécages)
(Canada, 111 min.)
Written and directed by Guy Édoin
Starring: Pascale Bussières, Gabriel Maillé, Luc Picard, François Papineau
The family in Wetlands (Marécages) has an intimate relationship with their land. Marie (Pascale Bussières, French Immersion) first appears stark naked as she walks through her wheat fields, through the tall grass and into the wetlands that surround her farm. Her son, Simon (Gabriel Maillé), is introduced playing in a tree. Correction: he is introduced while in a tree, playing with himself. Wetlands then offers a close-up as Simon’s semen dribbles onto a leaf and slides down like a raindrop or a spot of dew. Margaret Atwood, eat your heart out. 

Aptly named, the Santerre family also has a turbulent relationship with their land. As they struggle to keep their dairy farm afloat, the Santerres find themselves land rich and cash poor. Along with her husband, Jean (Luc Picard, A Sunday in Kigali), Marie works all hours to turn a profit. Their efforts are futile, though, for nature seems to work against them: a baby calf, which would have brought them $400, is stillborn; the summer forecast predicts poor farming conditions; and, most symbolically, their well runs dry.
The family, moreover, cannot seem to keep it together in order to overcome their poor situation. Simon simply doesn’t seem fit for the job, despite his obvious strength. His heart’s not in it and his lack of effort adds an extra grievance to Marie and Jean’s troubles. Tragedy strikes the farm even worse, however, through a terrible accident and a gripping turn of events. Finding themselves alone and in a bad situation where one is almost worth more dead than alive, the Santerres – especially Marie – force themselves to do all that is necessary to survive.
Through the family arduous efforts of the Santerre family, Wetlands offers a provocative and observant portrait of rural life in an age faced by technological change and considerable economic downturns. Told in a fleeting, observational style, Wetlands feels both timely and timeless. It’s hard to tell when exactly Wetlands transpires, aside from some contemporary English language pop songs travel on the airwaves.

Édoin makes a thoroughly impressive feature debut as writer/director with Wetlands. Most remarkable is the rich synthesis and interconnectedness between the Santerres and the land they live off. Offering some beautifully composed scenes with the help of DP Serge Desrosiers, Wetlands uses some stunning tracking shots and compositions that foreground the landscape of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. In some scenes, the soft natural light soothes Marie as she walks through the field while caressing the plants. Wetlands has a nostalgic feel, if not a palpable sense of loss. At the same time, the framing of the land engulfs the Santerres to evoke the familiar and resonant theme of a small community living within a hostile environment. Enhanced by a phenomenal sound design that accentuates crickets, cicadas, the wind and the water, Wetlands underscores both the freeing tranquility of the country, as well as the brutal heat and the slow passage of time.
The performances are also quite striking, with all the actors enduring roles that are demanding both physically and emotionally. Bussières is exceptional as Marie, offering an intense and complicated turn as her character battles self-doubts, old demons, and new temptations along with her present dilemma. Maillé also covers considerable terrain as Simon, assuming the roles of both the victim and the aggressor. Simon’s sexual awakening is perhaps the film’s strangest, if not mishandled, thread; however, Maillé’s performance as the eerie voyeur adds a peculiar spin to the tale. Likewise, Simon’s close relationship with his grandmothers (plural in the contemporary fashion) redeems the problematic implication that his sexuality precludes him from being “man enough” for farm life.

With its story of poverty, death, and despair, Wetlands offers a tale and tone of tragedy reminiscent of Marc Forster’s 2001 film Monster’s Ball. It’s often depressing, and quietly unsettling, but Wetlands intrigues right through its ambiguously unsettling end. A powerful tale of survival – if not la survivance, depending on how one chooses to read this open and malleable film – Wetlands is a notable debut by a new Canadian talent.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Wetlands screened in Ottawa at The Bytowne as part of Canada’s Top Ten.