The same long-suffering quality that allowed a salt-of-the-earth Canadian to singlehandedly maintain the family farm for decades ultimately enables him to put the entire property up for sale in “The Auction,” a film whose measured pace and minimal conflict seem better suited to pastoral living than arthouse viewing. In an interview with the pic’s Cannes Critics’ Week programmers, writer-director Sebastien Pilote (“The Salesman”) likened the put-upon old father to Shakespeare’s Lear or Balzac’s Pere Goriot, though the comparisons suggest the potential for greater incident and interaction between characters. Ultimately, the melancholy film will sow its elegiac impact in fest fields.
A forlorn loner, Gaby Gagnon (Gabriel Arcand, a Genie winner for “The Decline of the American Empire”) is a man of few words, nearly content sharing his home with no one but his sheepdog, and tending to a farm that has afforded him just three days’ vacation in the past 40 years. It’s a quiet, Sisyphean existence, as he works dawn ’til dusk tending his flock, mending fences and otherwise keeping up the property that his two brothers abandoned long ago. Virtually his only visitor is his accountant, Louis (Gilles Renaud), who urges Gaby to modernize, bringing him a refurbished computer he never so much as uses.
The only companionship Gaby seems to crave is that of his two daughters, who have abandoned this rural lifestyle in favor of big-city Montreal. The younger, Frederique (Sophie Desmarais), is trying to make it as an actress, while older sister Marie (Lucie Laurier) is having trouble with her marriage and pays a rare visit to her dad to ask for a $200,000 loan, oblivious to the fact that her father’s farm can barely sustain itself these days. And yet, he promises to come through all the same, notifying Louis, contacting an auction house and renting a small social-housing flat in town, indifferent to the sacrifice and determined to assist.
What follows is a naturalistic account of the various steps required for Gaby to extricate himself from the life he’s followed for the past 60-odd years — the ritual dismantling of a routine that otherwise would have occupied him until frailty made it impossible to rise at dawn and see to his sheep. Pilote indulges no subplots, privileges no flashbacks and fails to recognize (or simply rejects) that a dose of carefully deployed humor would’ve made the entire experience more palatable.
Apart from the melancholy impact of composer Serge Nakauchi-Pelletier’s steel-guitar score and the occasional breathtaking glimpses of Gaby’s land — too hilly to support crops and surely too beautiful to surrender — the director resists romanticizing the situation, focusing on quotidian farming details and the steps necessary to retire from that lifestyle. Once made, the farmer’s decision can’t be undone, and all that remain are logistics (plus one last-ditch detour to reconnect with his ex-wife of 20 years).
As a filmgoing experience, “Le Demantelement” barely feels adequate to sustain its 111-minute running time, and yet, by the end, the sheer emotional weight of Gaby’s gesture can be felt — an impact the film leaves on its audience in the days that follow. One could easily be reminded of Shel Silverstein’s heartbreaking “The Giving Tree”; were this a fable, Gaby might have chosen instead to sell his own organs in order to support his daughter, so vitally does her request impact his soul. In one nearly unbearable scene, knowing the new apartment doesn’t accept pets, Gaby drives his perfectly healthy dog to the shelter and pays the $25 to have her put down. Surely no one wants to see that on a Friday night — and yet, who could ever forget it?