The central figure in Sebastien Chabot’s documentary exhibits undeniable passion. Describing the object of his adoration, he comes across an intelligent, articulate and more than a little long-winded. Whether or not you’ll enjoy hearing him expound at length will depend on how interested you are in gardens. Speaking for myself, I certainly enjoy spending time in one on a beautiful day. But it was hard for me not to become impatient with the endless onscreen paeans to the subject in The Gardener.
The film revolves around footage from an extensive interview with famed gardener Francis Cabot conducted a year before his death in 2011. A wealthy American with a patrician background, Cabot spent many years perfecting Les Quatre Vents, a magnificent 20-acre English-style garden on the grounds of his estate in Charlevoix Country, Quebec. It’s an area that his family began traveling to in the 1840s and was also a frequent summer destination for President William Howard Taft.
“I see visiting a garden as an emotional and sensual experience,” the elegant Cabot comments early in the film. The filmmaker does his best to convey those sentiments with the beautiful photography, shot during various seasons, of the lavish garden featuring a Japanese tea teahouse, an Asian-style moon bridge, rope bridges, large-sized sculptures of frogs playing musical instruments, reflecting pools and, of course, a dazzling array of horticulture. Luc St. Pierre’s gentle score, along with copious classical music selections, adds to the bucolic atmosphere.
Cabot acknowledges his garden’s many international influences, culled from his extensive trips abroad. “I consider myself a world-class plagiarist,” he declares.
The doc includes commentary from Cabot’s wife Anne, who shared his passion for gardens, and his son, who says about the garden, “My father thought of it as a work of art.” We also hear from Canadian government officials and several writers specializing in gardening (including the deliciously named Penelope Hobhouse), who all sing Cabot’s praises.
The gorgeous photography and soft-spoken commentary is all very soothing, but a little of it goes a long way. The closest thing that resembles drama in the proceedings is Anne describing her consternation when her husband decided to construct a large wooden arch on the property.
And as charming as Cabot is, he also comes across as a bit of a snob, especially when it comes to people who don’t appreciate gardens in the manner he wants them to, which is to sit quietly and contemplatively, letting the environment soak in. You get the feeling he wasn’t terribly fond of picnics.
“Gardeners, I suppose, are all trying to recreate the Garden of Eden,” he declares, in one of his more pretentious comments.
Nonetheless, there’s no disputing the beauty of his creation, which unfortunately is open to the public only a few days a year. Cabot is clearly an important figure in modern garden design history, having been responsible for many others around the world beside his signature creation. The Gardener concludes with a list of the many accomplishments, honors and awards he accrued throughout his life, and it’s longer than most films’ end credits.
Production companies: Films Reflektor
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Director-screenwriter-producer: Sebastien Chabot
Executive producer: Michael Slack
Directors of photography: Sebastien Chabot, Genevieve Ringuet
Editor: Aurelie Govaere
Composer: Luc St-Pierre