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Wintry and droll: Familiar Grounds indeed

A scene from the Quebec film "Familar Grounds" (En Terrains Connu)

3 out of 4 stars


Sometimes, in the face of too much of nothing, you gotta get the hell outta Dodge, off life's beaten path, to get a fresh perspective on things.

This, mes amis, is one of the "lessons" you'll take away from Familiar Grounds, the droll second feature from Montreal director Stéphane Lafleur, whose debut Continental, a Film without Guns got tongues wagging at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.

Dodge City, in this case, is a winter-bound suburban wasteland somewhere in Quebec; the getting-out comes courtesy of a clunky rental car pointed north toward the closed-up family cottage.

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At the wheel is Maryse Bonné (Fanny Mallette, a Geneviève Bujold look-alike heading a uniformly spot-on Québécois cast), who's trapped in a job at a cardboard-box factory and a marriage to a sweet but clueless guy (Sylvain Marcel). Riding shotgun is her brother, the feckless Benoit (Francis La Haye), a thirtysomething doofus shacked up with his widowed, convalescent father (Michel Daigle), who spends his days roaming the neighbourhood with a metal detector, and his evenings travelling by Ski-Doo to the Christopher Pratt-ish walk-up of the single mom (Suzanne Lemoine) he thinks he loves.

The siblings' quest? To retrieve a trailer from the cottage, bring it home, then use it to haul away a backhoe that, for reasons unexplained, has been sitting in Maryse's front yard for months.

The road trip, though, is fraught, and not only by strains between brother and sister. A few days earlier, we know, Benoit was visited by a man claiming to be from the future (Denis Houle). Not that far in the future, mind you - "just from next September" - but far enough to be able to warn Benoit his sister "is going to have a bad accident," a head-on car crash in a blizzard, in fact, that only Benoit may be able to thwart.

All this sounds terribly "indie," admittedly. But thankfully, Lafleur never lets his movie become an oh-so-precious assemblage of quirky tics. A "deadpannist" in the Jim Jarmusch mode, he likes the long take, often shot from a middle distance, coloured in the muted hues of an Alex Colville or Jean Paul Lemieux canvas.

Occasionally, his metaphors land with a thud - there's a scene where a sleepless Maryse, visiting the kitchen in the wee hours, watches in a too-obvious close-up a swirl of water go burp down the drain. Over all, however, character and milieu, sound and soundtrack (by Swedish electro-pop duo Sagor & Swing), tone and content mesh into an involving whole. It's a film that feels simultaneously complex and simple, quotidian and fantastical, rather like a good Richard Brautigan story.

" Mon pays, c'est l'hiver," Gilles Vigneault sang almost a half-century ago. Certainly that's the case here, where the numbing sameness of a Quebec winter finds its human equivalent in the frozen souls and ground-down dreams of Lafleur's characters.

This thawtful film, which earned praise earlier this year at festivals in Los Angeles and Berlin, currently is scheduled to screen only in Toronto theatres. Here's hoping it somehow finds a wider audience.

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Familiar Grounds (En terrains connus)

  • Directed and written by Stéphane Lafleur
  • Starring Fanny Mallette, Francis La Haye, Michel Daigle
  • Classification: N/A

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James More

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