DiverCiné Review: 'Le démantèlement'

Le démantèlement (The Auction)
(Canada, 111 min.)
Written and directed by Sébastien Pilote
Starring: Gabriel Arcand, Gilles Renaud, Lucy Laurier, Sophie Desmarais
Gabriel Arcand plays Gaby and Sophie Desmarais plays Frederique in Le démantèlement
an eOne Films release.
“A man without land is nobody,” says Duddy’s grandfather (Zvee Scooler) while giving some wise advice in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Duddy (Richard Dreyfuss) was a young man entering the daunting field of property ownership back when Duddy Kravitz premiered in 1974; however, flash-forward to 2014, and the landscape looks and feels a little different. Gaby (Gabriel Arcand) is the world wise landowner of Sébastien Pilote’s moving film Le dématèlement (The Auction), which screens in Ottawa next Tuesday as part of the DiverCiné Festival celebrating Francophone World Cinema. Gabriel must part with the land with a greater gravity than that with which Duddy claimed it, for he has fully identified with his land—and allowed himself to be defined by it by others. Le démantèlement, a poignant story of self-reappraisal during hard times, could not offer a story more potent or relevant to today.

Le dématèlement comes to DiverCiné as a nominee for five awards including Best Picture and Best Actor at this week’s Canadian Screen Awards, too, and it could screen as a winner since the awards are on Sunday. The film offers one of the stronger slice-of-life dramas to emerge from the contemporary film scene in Quebec. The film is devastating in its subtle and understated simplicity.

It’s a moving story about a seasoned farmer letting go of the world that has defined him for decades. Gaby, a sheep farmer in rural Quebec, puts his life into perspective when his eldest daughter, Marie (Lucy Laurier), arrives from Montreal with news that she is in the midst of a divorce and needs $200 000 to buy out her ex-husband’s half of the house so that her two children can keep their home. Gaby agrees to the loan, although the modest details of his surroundings—an old beater of a tractor, few farm hands, and scant new technology—suggest that he hardly has the means to provide for his daughter.

Gaby longs to keep the property, for it has been passed down through his family and he believes that land should be inherited from generation to generation, rather than sold off at auction. However, his brothers got of the business when it became tough and left him the lone caretaker of their father’s legacy for forty years. That’s a heavy burden to unload for a small financial sum that will barely cover his debts, let alone Marie’s loan.

Gaby, played with remarkable subtlety and humble conviction by Gabriel Arcand (The Decline of the American Empire), feels like the dying breed of a generation that has little place in this world. Independent farmers like Gaby can barely get by, although there are even fewer prospects that greet them once they exit the business. “You’re better off dying early,” remarks Gaby’s accountant and unnamed friend (Gilles Renaud) while assessing Gaby’s prospects. Gaby defines his worth with his land and his work, but the land is essentially worthless, which leaves him reconsidering what truly gives value to his life. Gaby, a Willy Loman of rural Quebec, is probably worth more dead than alive.

Told in a quaintly unpretentious two-act structure that names each act after one of Gaby’s two daughters, Le démantèlement sees Gaby dismantle his life across the seasons so that he can provide for his children. Gaby, an old-school family man, mentions more than once during his assessment of the farm’s prospects that he might have been able to keep the property if he had any sons. He doesn’t, though, and his two daughters, Marie and Frédérique (Sophie Desmarais from Sarah Prefers to Run) are products of a generation for which growing up means moving away from home.

As he takes stock of his life and comes to terms with relinquishing the farming ways and settling in poverty while his daughters get a new chance for life on their own terms, he takes pride in the transferring the relative security and stability he needs for retirement so that Marie may have a comfortable fresh start. Duddy’s grandfather says that it takes a piece of land to define a man’s worth, and Gaby might agree with him when Le démantèlement begins with the aging farmer walking the grounds of his farm; however, he gradually learns that it’s not the land that defines a person, but rather the legacy.

Le démantèlement deconstructs Gaby and his world piece by piece, but it builds to something fonder, greater, and hopeful. The optimism of the film appears in the second act when Gaby receives a visit from his younger daughter, Frédérique. Frédérique, a budding actress in Montreal, returns to the family farm just as Gaby proceeds with the final stages of the dismantlement. Unlike Marie, Frédérique shows a connection to the family farm. Affectionate with the lambs and keen to take in the grounds one final time, Frédérique’s return to the farm suggests a longing, a sense of absence that has grown in her since moving to Montreal. Desmarais is just as remarkably subtle in her performance as Frédérique as she was in the title role of Sarah Prefers to Run, and as she sits with her father as he breaks following news of the auction, the restrained power between her performance and Arcand’s hints that Gaby’s legacy and commitment to family lives on in Frédérique.

Writer/director Sébastien Pilote (Le vendeur) unfolds the story in picturesque, novelistic fashion. It’s a story that resonate greatly with the fluctuations in economy and opportunity, and the ensuing changes that ripple into family dynamics, culture, and ideology as individuals adapt with the changing times. There’s a great sense of loss to Gaby’s story, as Le démantèlement feels rooted in the vein of pastoral literature as it frames Gaby’s life against the rolling hillsides of his farm, which provide beautiful backdrops on which the sheep may run. Pilote gives ample screentime to Gaby’s final tours of his farmland and offers one exquisite landscape shot after another. The cinematography by Michel Le Veaux captures the story in the warmth of soft sunlight and gives Le démantèlement an affectionately golden hue: the land seems uncorrupted from Gaby’s point of view. A stirring acoustic score by Serge Nakauchi-Pelletier adds just the right chord of sentimentality to complement the tinge of nostalgia. The rousing guitars rifts lift Le démantèlement along with Arcand’s quietly masterful performance to make the film a delicately minimalist human drama.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Le dématèlement screens in DiverCiné on Tuesday, March 11 at 9:10 pm at The ByTowne in French with English subtitles.