'Boundaries' ('Pays'): Film Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
No woman is an island.

The second feature from 'Sarah Prefers to Run' director Chloe Robichaud is a female-centric political fable set in a fictional island state off the coast of Canada.

There must be something in the Quebecois water supply that produces so many precociously gifted young directors like Chloe Robichaud, Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve. Robichaud was just 25 when she premiered her debut feature in Cannes, the 2013 comedy drama Sarah Prefers to Run. Still not even 30, she has just unveiled her sophomore effort Boundaries closer to home at both the Toronto and Quebec City film festivals.

Boundaries is a wry, feminist-leaning political parable whose subtle nuances will make more sense to Canadian audiences than overseas, which may explain why Cannes rejected it at rough cut stage. Robichaud playfully claims the story is inspired by real events, though the setting is a fictional island nation called Besco nestled in choppy waters off Canada's Atlantic coast. The premise suggests rich potential for sharp Swiftian satire, but sadly the end result feels underpowered and unfocused. Boundaries seems most likely to remain a niche curiosity, making its next festival stop in London next month.

Driven to desperate measures by a harsh economic climate, Besco's president Danielle Richard (Macha Grenon) calls a summit meeting with Canadian negotiators to discuss a potential deal for foreign companies to exploit the island's natural resources. Emily Price (Captain America co-star Emily VanCamp) is the bilingual American mediator chairing the talks, while Felixe Nasser-Villeray (Nathalie Doummar) is a junior player in the Ottawa delegation headed by her boorish ministerial boss, Paul Rivest (Remy Girard).

As key players huddle awkwardly around student desks in an empty school, negotiations proceed slowly. Lobbyists fly in to argue their case, internal squabbles break out, and local citizens mount protests. President Richard is intermittently distracted by outside concerns, from motherhood to domestic terrorist threats. Away from the talks, Emily puts her mediation skills to more personal use during tense phone calls with her partner and child. Meanwhile, the conflicted Felixe begins to doubt the ethics of Canada's involvement in Besco as she falls into a flirtatious friendship with a smoldering young hunk from the other team.

Boundaries is an intimate study of three women navigating the male-dominated milieu of international politics, where condescension and mansplaining are the norm, and threats of lethal violence often lurking the shadows. Beyond its feminist dimension, the story could also serve as a pointed allegory for Canada's relationship to the U.S., for Quebec's love-hate feelings towards Canada, or for any small nation's problematic ties to more powerful neighbors.

Alas, Robichaud never finds a convincing way to animate this material, leaving the dramatic thrust too loose, the comedic subtext too mild and the characters too thinly sketched. But the film does have some compensations, chiefly its ruggedly beautiful maritime locations (St. John's in Newfoundland and Fogo Island, Labrador) and its emphatically female-centric cast. Quebecoise screen veteran Grenon is particularly magnetic to watch, her sweetest smile underscored by withering disdain, making her a natural for politician roles.

An interesting idea let down by lukewarm execution, Boundaries is not the strong sophomore film it might have been. But maybe it is the educational misstep that all young directors need to make on the slow journey to greatness. Fortunately for Robichaud, time is still on her side.

Production companies: Item 7, La Boîte à Fanny, Morag Loves Company
Cast: Macha Grenon, Emily VanCamp, Nathalie Doummar, Remy Girard, Alexandre Landry, Serge Houde, Yves Jacques, Sophie Faucher
Director, screenwriter: Chloe Robichaud
Producers: Fanny-Laure Malo, Pierre Even, Marie-Claude Poulin, Barbara Doran
Cinematographer: Jessica Lee Gagne
Editor: Michel Arcand
Music: Simon Bertrand
Sales company: Indie Sales, Paris
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
No rating, 100 minutes