'And the Birds Rained Down' ('Il pleuvait des oiseaux'): Film Review | San Sebastián 2019

Courtesy of Indie Sales
Love and death in the wild.

The third feature from Canadian Louise Archambault explores the impact of outside intrusions on the lives of a trio of old-timers living in the wild.

A deceptively gentle rural drama with an ecological slant and a tone that darkens as it advances, And the Birds Rained Down ends up delivering far more than it initially promises. Cleaving closely to the award-winning Jocelyne Saucier novel on which it’s based, this eco-friendly, elegantly delivered tale about the sunset changes in the lives of a trio of graybeards living in the woods is engaging, thought-provoking and ultimately moving, with potential mainstream appeal among the middle-age demographic that could generate interest beyond the fest circuit.

Like old age itself, on the surface Birds might be placid, but there's a lot going on beneath. Gruff, down-to-earth Charlie (Gilbert Sicotte); bouncy (and tubbier) Tom (Rémy Girard), a singer who plays in the local bars; and Ted (Kenneth Welsh) are living a life of apparently Thoreauvian simplicity (plus marijuana plants) far from civilization, in the middle of a forest near a lake. But within the first 10 minutes, Ted unexpectedly dies in his sleep. The reaction of Charlie and Tom is interestingly calm and philosophical, which pretty much describes the tone of the film.

In a nearby town, Steve (Éric Robidoux), manager of a local hotel with few guests who spends a lot of time smoking the old boys' weed, is escorting his elderly aunt Gertrude (Andrée Lachapelle) back to her rest home following a funeral. Gertrude refuses to go back inside, wishing to see the countryside, so Steve decides to ask an initially reluctant Charlie and Tom, to whom he delivers supplies, if they can put her up. Meanwhile photographer Raf (Ève Landry) appears, wishing to photograph Ted, whose family died in a wildfire that devastated the region years before — hence the film’s self-consciously poetic title.

The stage is thus set for an On Golden Pond-style, comfortable third-age drama with a light comic edge, but Birds ends up going much deeper and darker than that as the script, driven along by beautifully nuanced performances from its central trio, leads us into some quite unexpected areas. The first, wonderful exchange of glances between Gertrude and Charlie (on arrival, she symbolically casts away her troubled institutionalized past by renaming herself “Marie-Desneige”) indeed develops into a tremulous octogenarian love affair as Charlie takes her under his wing and shows her a whole new life, not just of stolen, old-folk kisses but of full-blown sensuality. Their nighttime conversations across a darkened room — like those of kids in summer camp, except they’re 80 — are among the pic’s most memorable scenes as their inevitably painful back stories start to emerge.

On the darker side, the theme of euthanasia is broached, like everything else, with delicacy and maturity. And any film with a burning forest backdrop will inevitably have its ecological point to make, with the man-made Great Fire directly or indirectly affecting the lives of all the characters. Ted’s paintings of the fire, discovered by Raf in a shed that’s been locked for years, are evidence of that — and meanwhile, back in the present and just a few miles off, another forest fire threatens.

There are a few false notes in Birds. It’s perhaps unlikely that a natural performer like Tom would have shunned humanity so radically by heading out into the woods. The relationship between Raf and Steve that may or may not be happening feels undercooked by comparison with all the in-forest drama: As a character, Raf never quite escapes her outsider-intruder status in either the lives of the other characters or in the movie. Meanwhile, a late subplot involving a couple of rookie cops feels superfluous to dramatic requirements.

Visually, things are, gorgeously, what you’d expect from a film set in a Canadian forest by a lake. DP Mathieu Laverdière thankfully doesn’t engage in drone abuse, but neither does he miss the opportunity for some nicely staged tableaux, for example of Marie-Desneige sitting nervously on the dock as Charlie tries to coax her into the water.

The piano-based score by Andréa Bélanger and David Ratté of Montreal indie folk outfit Will Driving West stays just the right side of sentimental. But the real musical honors go to Rémy Girard’s live performances of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” and Tom Waits’ funereally beautiful “Time” — riskily performed by Girard at full length, perhaps because of its entirely apt title-nod line, “And a thousand pigeons fall around her feet.”

Production companies: Les Films Outsiders
Cast: Andrée Lachapelle, Gilbert Sicotte, Rémy Girard, Kenneth Welsh, Ève Landry, Éric Robidoux
Director-screenwriter: Louise Archambault, based on the novel by Jocelyne Saucier
Producer: Ginette Petit
Executive producer: Nathalie Bissonnette
Director of photography: Mathieu Laverdière
Art directors: Marie-Claude Gosselin, Jean Le Bourdais
Costume designer: Caroline Poirier
Editor: Richard Comeau
Composers: Andréa Bélanger, David Ratté
Casting directors: Karel Quinn, Lucie Robitaille
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (Official Selection)
Sales: Indie Sales

127 minutes