68: En Terrains Connus (Familiar Ground) (LAFF 2011)wri-dir. Stéphane Lafleur, Canada, 2011, 98 mins
(This review is crossposted as part of The House Next Door’s coverage of the 2011 LA Film Fest.)
There’s been an incredible amount of snow in Los Angeles this week. It’s coming in from Alaska, from Wisconsin, from Latvia; it’s all up on screen, with a considerable number of movies set in bleak white snowscapes. Maybe there’s nothing more exotic to Southern Californians than seeing people in heavy overcoats and riding snowmobiles. This sense of snow is most apparent in the trio of Québécois films, which all share distinct commonalities, screening at the festival. Besides being utterly blanketed in snow, these French Canadian films are all methodically paced and play with the passage of time. They dissect the functioning (or dysfunction) of the family unit, and are preoccupied with notions of personal isolation and mortality. While not necessarily bearing the markers of a distinct or organized film movement, these contemporary offerings from Quebec all spring from similar sensibilities.
Writer-director Stéphane Lafleur does nothing to disavow me of the notion that Canada is some kind of depressing anomic frozen wasteland with En Terrains Connus. But he does sketch a compelling tale of family dysfunction and the glacier-like encroaching of decay and stasis. It’s a slow burn of a film, with its structuring principle announced by its titles as a series of accidents. Quiet and reserved Maryse (Fanny Mallette) is shaken into a low-key obsession when a co-worker at the box factory loses his arm in an industrial mishap. Meanwhile, her slacker brother, Benoit (Francis La Haye), receives a warning of a future accident when the local car rental owner, who just happens to have traveled backward in time, brings a message that Maryse will die in a car crash.
The way which Lafleur handles this time travel conceit—droll, matter-of-fact, its plausibility neither proven nor questioned—is a microcosm of the rest of the film. We nimbly shift from scenes of deadpan domestic humor to chilling slow-motion fugues. Maryse and Benoit’s profound alienation is captured in wide shots that gaze at the isolating sea of white blanketing the icy wastes of Quebec. The characters, like the world they inhabit, behave as if under sedation. They’re only roused from the steady state of their lethargy by the accumulation of annoyances that build like a piece of music heading towards a crescendo. It’s something that the film captures on a sonic level with an ear for repetition: in the rattling of silverware, for example, or the hum of a snowmobile engine. We hear more than we can see; at times the breaking points seem to elude our gaze as they happen off screen or between scenes. We only witness the aftermath—as in the case of a jar of tomato sauce that Benoit desperately struggles to open.
The performances are solidly grounded in understatement; Maryse’s husband Alain (Sylvain Marcel), with his goofy hobbies and well-meaning inability to process his wife’s psychological dissolution, feels plucked right out of a Coen Brothers film. The family patriarch (Michel Daigle), cantankerous and hale, provides a jolt of energy to each scene he’s in. The sibling relationship at the core of the film is slowly sketched over the course of the film as Benoit wrestles with what to do with the warning he’s been given. Because these characters are so reserved, and because they are comfortable in their uncomfortable silence, they can feel somewhat distant. But Lafleur helps find a way in, and by the end that reserve feels more like an unspoken intimacy.
There are tiny moments that click into place after we realize what they mean: Benoit finds a toy car buried in the snow with a metal detector. Maryse measures an ice chest with the length of her arm. The film lets tension simmer rather than explode, and it trends toward the oblique without being confusing. We linger on the unspoken and the unseen, and it’s all tied together with an ethos of comic reflection and gentle self-deprecation. At the risk of painting an entire national and regional cinema with a single brush, these qualities make the film seem quintessentially Canadian.