It doesn’t hurt to love horticulture to enjoy Canadian filmmaker Sébastien Chabot’s leisurely documentary The Gardener, but it’s hardly a prerequisite. Most gardeners would tell you that constructing perfect rows of flowers, trees, and vegetables is a massive, laborious artistic undertaking, but few films have looked at the dedication and creativity required to maintain some of the world’s largest, most majestic gardens. The Gardener nicely balances the primal naturalism of gardening and a deeply personal story of one artist’s imagination.
Les Quatre Vents in Charlevoix, Quebec is one of the most famous, resplendent, sprawling private gardens in the world; kept up and maintained by property owner, horticulturalist, and philanthropist Frank Cabot until his passing in 2011. Cabot, one of the founders of The Garden Conservancy – an organization dedicated to maintaining large scale gardens after the passing of their previous owners – inherited the 20 acre (and once whopping 90 square mile) property, bought by his great-grandfather, a former New York businessman, in 1902. In 1975, Cabot began expanding and adding flourishes to the estate’s already elaborate grounds, building pools, orchards, chalets, and even Japanese Tea Houses amid a plethora of flora imported from around the world. Today, Les Quatre Vents remains closed off to the general public – with exceptions made for select dignitaries and VIPs – but anyone who has seen it will gush about its status as one of the greatest man-maintained outdoor spaces in the world.
Frequent television director Chabot was granted two days worth of interview access to the thoughtful, gregarious Cabot back in 2009 while the man was already in failing health, and The Gardener benefits most from this time with Les Quatre Vents’ creator than any number of other talking head experts on hand to gush about the sights. Cabot speaks about his inspirations and influences like a great painter; likening the cyclical, malleable nature of his creations working in tandem with the whims of nature to a symphonic experience. Cabot was never a professional designer or landscaper, but what emerges through these interviews is the soul of a true, impassioned artist. Cabot explains that his father wanted the garden to elicit emotional reactions in all who gaze upon it, and it’s a viewpoint that the son has taken one step further.
Chabot makes sure every leaf, petal, blade of grass, and reflection in water is captured with clarity that’s as close to being there as most viewers are likely to get. Chabot balances the visual splendours of Les Quatre Vents with a keen sense of the methodology and process that Cabot employed in his creations. The Gardener does a fine job of making viewers both awestruck and intellectually stimulated at the same time, and in its earlier moments, the film also functions as a curious, entertaining bit of art history.
If there’s a problem with The Gardener, it comes from a rather subjective sense of pacing. Clearly, Chabot and the supplementary interview subjects he trots out to talk about Cabot’s work are more enamoured with certain aspects of Les Quatre Vents than they are others. By his own declaration, Cabot explains that strolling through a garden should be a solitary endeavour best experienced at the pace of the viewer, letting the eye fall where it may for however long it wants to remain there. The Gardener can’t fully reconcile this key fact, and as such, the documentary will drag at points depending on personal interest. Still, you’re unlikely to ever get another look at Les Quatre Vents this intimately in your lifetime, so we should all be happy for what we get.