The Canadian film industry is so concentrated in a handful of big urban centres that any film aiming to do justice to the rural grind runs the risk of lampooning farm life and reeking of thinly veiled urban snobbery. The absence of any such pretension or sweeping generalities about country life might perhaps be what’s most striking about Guy Édoin’s stirring debut feature, Wetlands.
The family drama kicks off TIFF’s Canada First! program, which is dedicated to showcasing first-time feature filmmakers. Wetlands is a film of stark natural beauty (with expansive vistas beautifully captured by cinematographer Serge Desrosiers). That beauty is contrasted by the chronicle of a devastating summer for one Quebec dairy-farming family dealing with the dire consequences of an ongoing drought in the Eastern Townships.
Haunting family dynamics are at play as the coming-of-age tale finds Marie Santerre (a fantastic Pascale Bussières) and her 17-year-old son Simon (Gabriel Maillé) trying to overcome the elements and each other, as they’re beset by successive tragedies. The tension between the two, not unlike the stifling heat, mounts to uncomfortable levels.
Wetlands is raw filmmaking at its finest: painfully exposed grim intentions, utterly remorseless dialogue, landscapes of breathtaking allure and a teenaged sexual awakening at odds with the agrarian mould.
Édoin’s trilogy of short films, The Bridge, The Dead Water and La Battue, all previously played to great acclaim at TIFF. With his first feature, he returns to the family farm where he grew up. By revisiting his past, the filmmaker hoped to dispel common misconceptions about modern agriculture, namely outdated depictions of 19th-century rural Quebec life.
Without being autobiographical, the film is inspired by recollections from Édoin’s childhood. The character of Simon bears some similarity to the director in his youth, specifically in his reluctance to take part in farm chores. “My ties to Simon are numerous, but he’s not what I’d consider an alter ego,” says Édoin, who emailed Xtra from Venice, where his film premiered to glowing reviews and a standing ovation on Sept 3. “What’s closest to my teenage reality was Simon’s disdain for farm work. He’s more of a dreamer, more concerned with his identity quest and burgeoning sexuality. I think we’re both pig-headed, but I wasn’t as angry as he was. I gave him a yearning for confrontation that I didn’t have at that age.”
In the film, Simon’s half-assed agricultural efforts set off a string of events that eventually render the family’s grim reality even harder to stomach. Mother and son are both at their most vulnerable as their farm nears bankruptcy. A low-life local steps in as an alleged saviour and soon reveals his true predatory colours to both mother and son.
Unlike so many painful coming-of-age movies, Édoin exercises restraint in telling the story of a teenaged boy yearning to break away from his parents. What Édoin doesn’t shy away from, however, is depicting Simon’s lust for a handsome neighbour and playing his sexual ambiguity to powerful effect.
“It’s the summer when this character begins to feel strong sexual desires,” says Édoin. “Will Simon end up gay? I don’t know, and ultimately, it doesn’t really interest me. But I liked the idea of an exploratory period, as hormones begin working him up, which is something else I shared with the character! I wanted to explore all of Simon’s desires, whether with the neighbour or a stripper, building his identity around this sexual ambiguity. In all my films, I like to explore my characters’ sexuality without restraint.”
Wetlands opens Friday, Sept 9 at 6:30pm at the Isabel Bader Theatre and also plays Sunday, Sept 11 at 12:45pm at the AMC as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.
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