It is spring, apparently. And for those whose only evidence of this most hopeful of seasons so far is the odd foolhardy daffodil peeking out from a pocket of stubborn grey snow, here is “The Gardener,” an almost indecently luscious-looking, summertime tour of one of the great private gardens of the world: Francis “Frank” Cabot’s 20-acre Quatre Vents, in Quebec. The pictures, shot by director Sébastien Chabot, truly do gladden the wintry heart with their explosions of color and life: Blowsy delphiniums, speckled astrantias, and bursting red poppies nestle in spectacular array near picturesque rope bridges and placid Japanese teahouses built over seven years without the use of a single nail. However, Chabot’s film is not “The Garden,” but “The Gardener” and as a portrait of the man behind Quatre Vents, unlike the gorgeous flora, it never blossoms.
Cabot himself appears in interview footage taken a couple of years prior to his death in 2011. Against a backdrop of manicured lawns and a stone staircase that leads up to his massive family home, the octogenarian recounts a little of his life history and philosophy. It is pleasant enough, but stubbornly uncontroversial, with even Luc St-Pierre’s pretty musical compositions, along with the somewhat overfamiliar classical cuts on the soundtrack, contributing to a comfortable mood of gradual uplift.
Beautiful though the images are, what Chabot’s documentary does best is convince you that there’s no substitute for seeing this exceptional piece of “garden theater” firsthand. But though Frank’s son Colin talks in lovingly reverent terms about his father’s decision to open the gardens to the public in 2009, the fact is that for most of us, these glossy images are the closest we’ll get. Quatre Vents is open just four days each summer. Tickets for the year book out within an hour or so of going on sale. And even then they are for a guided tour, that must offer a very different experience to the one rhapsodized here, in which the lone stroller gets to stumble upon the pigeonnier, built at the end of a reflecting pool in homage to the Taj Mahal, or the Chinese moon bridge whose arch kisses its own reflection in the jade-green pond to form a perfect circle.
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There are, of course, practical reasons for keeping the gardens free from trampling hordes bristling with ice cream wrappers and plastic bottles, but those explanations aren’t even offered up here. Instead, the public visits are presented as an uncomplicated example of noblesse oblige, itself a pretty complicated concept. Money is seldom mentioned by the “patrician” Cabots, and instead it falls to the other interviewees, including horticulturist Penelope Hobhouse, erstwhile Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson and Tim Richardson, gardening columnist for The Telegraph, to refer to the stacks of green, amid all the pinks and lilacs, that went into Quatre Vents.
“Very often geniuses are a little mad and if he hadn’t had a lot of money, you might have said he was,” says Hobhouse. Such offhand comments hint that “The Gardener” could have done much more than handsomely advertise an already oversubscribed experience and contribute to another genius myth, by investigating the usefulness and meaningfulness of this expensive act of horticultural husbandry against a changing environmental and social backdrop. But little of that is explored here; there’s just not a great deal of movie in Chabot’s movie.
It’s doubtless unromantic to be presented with so much beauty and to wonder about the price tag. But here the issue is so delicately avoided that it feels a little like being told not to think about an elephant. Indeed, one coded but perhaps unusually truthful reference comes from Cabot himself, reciting a poem that he has inscribed in the garden and that he says encapsulates his approach. Tellingly, the words are taken from Alexander Pope’s Moral Essays, specifically Epistle IV, “Of the Use of Riches,” and for all the talk about revelation, they urge concealment: “Let not each beauty everywhere be spied/Where half the skill is decently to hide.” In “The Gardener,” the gardener is hidden best of all.