A Sheepfarmer’s Lonesome Life Comes Undone in Perceptive Film

The Auction (Le Dématelement), a Canadian film with screenplay and direction by Sébastian Pilote, in French with English subtitles (111 minutes) [Film Movement, a North American distributor of independent and foreign films, 2013]

This beautiful to behold, wonderfully acted, and deeply felt film has one uncharacteristic lighter moment.  Gaby Gagnon (played by the superb actor, Gabriel Arcand), is a French Canadian sheep farmer  at the center of Sébastian Pilote’s fictional portrait of a farmer’s life coming undone.  At the weary age of 63, Gaby tells his daughter Marie that in his 30 years of sheep farming, he has had three days off.  With a sly smile, he notes it could have been only two days; so who’s to complain?

Farmer Gaby Gagnon’s life on his farm is far from ideal.   His daughter Marie and two grandsons, as well as his younger daughter Frederique, who is an up and coming actress (played by the beautiful Sophie Desmarais who resembles the young Audrey Hepburn and whose appearance in the movie’s second half brings a loving glow to the screen), have become city folk, living in Montreal (six hours away from the farm in rural Quebec).  Farm life was also rejected twenty years earlier by Gaby’s ex-wife, Francoise, who felt “suffocated” and made a new life in a small town thirty minutes from the sheep farm.  She remarried  a shopkeeper who operates the town’s jewelry store.  Gaby is estranged from his two brothers, who also chose urban pursuits when they became adults.  Their demand for a share of the proceeds from the sale of the farm provides for an emotional confrontation that is riveting to watch.

No surprise then that Gaby’s closest companion is his loving sheep dog who is always by his side.   A soft-spoken man of few words, Gaby never refers to his dog by name, and neither does he use the first name of his farm hand, the Bouchard boy, who reliably aids him in cleaning out the barn stalls and caring for the farm’s herd of sheep.  Gaby’s indecision to euthanize or not to euthanize his canine pal when he makes the decision to rent an apartment and move to town is a riveting and unnerving moment in the film.  The Auction is, simply put, no Hollywood film with a sentimental streak.    The attractive, young widow with two young children (who has been left to run a neighboring farm after her husband pulled “the stunt” which ended his life) is powerless in filmmaker Pilote’s imagination to provide the happy Hollywood ending, though she certainly tries in her quiet fashion.

Ignoring the entreatments of his friend Louis (finely played by actor Gilles Renaud), who is also his accountant, Gaby decides to auction off his farm in order to raise the money needed by his daughter Marie, who has split up from her financially insolvent husband and wants to continue  to live with their sons in her heavily mortgaged family home in Montreal.  Rejecting Gaby’s suggestion to move back to the farm with his grandsons, Marie appeals to her father to use his land as collateral for a bank loan.  But as Gaby’s accountant makes clear, the farm has to be worked until Gaby dies given the debts on the farm already incurred and the limited annual income from its operation. If Gaby sells off the farm to subsidize the life of his “little princesses all grown up,” he will live out his life in a small apartment fit for a dog.

Resisting the advice of his friend, Gaby pushes forward with his plan.   Neither his ex-wife’s reminder that he used to believe that a “farm should be passed down” and that she “doesn’t know what you’ll do without your farm,”  nor the young widow’s emotional appeal that Gaby has walked his beautiful farm land every day for thirty years and she will be all “alone” if he sells the farm can persuade Gaby to rethink his decision.  Even beautiful and loving Frederique’s point-blank comment that her sister Marie is “using” him has no effect.  “I don’t mind” is Gaby’s reply.  Has he “lost his mind” as his ex-wife puts it?

“I have two daughters I love” is enough to provide Gaby Gagnon with the rationale for the sad dismantling of his life as a sheep farmer on the family land that he once loved.  With his time ticking down, Gaby is no mad King Lear though the movie rightly suggests some similarity to that tragedy with references to Frederique’s rehearsing for her role as Cordelia in a performance of King Lear in a Montreal theater.

Filmmaker Sébastian Pilote is from the Saguenay-Lac Saint-Jean area of Quebec (considered the heartland of the Quebec sovereignty movement), and The Auction was filmed in various locations in that region including Hébertville and Jonquiere.  The film makes palpable the beauty of this land, and the sadness of a farmer’s life unravelling.

Film Movement, the distributor of The Auction, has released this film as its Year 12, Film 3.  It is available for viewing by members of Film Movement for streaming at $2.99 and as a DVD for $14.95.  It will be available to non-members of Film Movement beginning on August 5, 2014.

[Frank Barrie, 5/1/14]

 

 

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