Brave and moving in its choice of subject matter and simplicity, Wetlands packs a punch in its portrayal of a tragic family drama sets again the backdrop of a small farming community in Quebec.
French-Canadian filmmaker Guy Edoin’s striking debut explores themes of sexual identity, grief, and rural farming through dysfunctional family relations. The opening scene sets up these themes with the appearance of 14-year-old Simon pleasuring himself and being called to help his parents deliver a young calf, that dies during birth. Its obvious from the start that his parents’ dedication to their work sets him apart, Simon is slow and clumsy, and his father Jean blames their misfortunes on his tardiness. The scene is symbolic of the isolation Simon feels in the family dynamic, the hardship his family endures running a farm that’s fraught with disappointment, and the accidental deaths which underpin the tragedy.
The sudden and accidental death of Jean plunges Simon into further isolation as his mourning mother Marie finds it hard not to blame him for her misery. As the story unfolds it becomes known, through subtle visual clues that there was a younger brother who drowned as a result of Simon’s negligence, much like the death of his father. The growing tension and emotional distance between mother and son is brilliantly portrayed through slow drawn out scenes void of background music or any activity even dialogue, which succeed in making the viewer highly uncomfortable, frustrated and restless.
The characters aren’t big on talking, which makes it difficult to emotionally connect, but the intensity and brilliance of Maille and Bussiers’ performances compensate for this lack of communication and demand an emotional reaction. Its impossible not to hate Marie for her selfish and immature treatment of Simon, who on top of dealing with his emerging sexual identity and frustration, is experiencing extreme guilt and grief at the death of his father. In fact their roles almost become reversed when Marie spirals into alcoholism and takes up with an abusive drifter, while Simon is forced to work the farm and be his own moral compass. It becomes easy to excuse his peeping Tom antics when he sneaks up on a farmer in the shower, or when he watches others having sex, because he’s been left without any guidance at such a confusing age.
The movie relies on subtly: the comfort that Simon’s gay grandmother and her partner provide is contrasted with his growing interest in men, leaving the interpretation of Simon’s sexual identity entirely up to the viewer. Blink and you’ll miss it, the film doesn’t spell anything out, and we’re constantly forced to put the pieces of the family's past and future together as events unfold. The ending of the film is also highly ambiguous, how much attention you pay to conversations throughout the film will dramatically effect the way you interpret the ending. Which is actually refreshing, and leaves you thinking about the actions you would take if you were in their shoes.
While it might not be the best movie to see on a first date, or a lazy Sunday afternoon, Wetlands is a haunting and moving family tragedy, that includes captivating cinematography saturated in vivid colors, coupled with a fantastic cast and a powerful silence that is very rare in modern cinema.
Review Score: 6.0 out of 10
Wetlands (Marecages) is screening at Sydney's Canadian Film Festival on August 18th.
Runtime: 111 minutes.