Review - The Gardener (2016)

In this 2016 documentary film, we hear from Frank Cabot, a self-taught horticulturist who created one of North America's most acclaimed private gardens, Les Quatre Vents. On about 20 acres in La Malbaie, Quebec, the Cabots spent many years building this masterpiece, inspired by gardens and gardeners all over the world. If you're in the mood for an 85 minute dose of serenity, this might be just the ticket.

Thoughts from your Pop Culture Concierge

Anyone who knows me knows I love a good garden (despite very little success in keeping one for myself). I've visited botanic gardens around the world, and one of the things I really like about this film is the fact that it helped me label some of the reasons I find exploring these sites such a soul-nourishing experience. A couple of quick caveats about The Gardener: Look, this is not an action film. Strictly speaking, I wouldn't even call it "entertaining". But during a year when I find myself fretting a lot about things outside my control, watching this movie delivered a rare hour or so of peace, lulling me into a welcome meditative and contemplative state. I'm guessing that isn't everyone's cup of tea, but it turned out to be just what I needed this week in particular. There is one significant omission though- clearly the Cabots must have been astonishingly wealthy to have had the luxury to make the creation of this garden, over decades, essentially their entire career. Building something so vast and beautiful had to cost untold sums of money, and it is never mentioned. This is a kind of decadence available only to a very tiny percentage of people and, while I think they have been generous with these gifts, I think it would have been worth addressing their great fortune directly. It's not even acknowledged, which seems like a strange thing to leave out. Having said all that, there were quite a few things I really appreciated about this movie.

All Manner of Flowers, Sumptuously Filmed

The film cuts back and forth between interviews with Frank Cabot and others, to scenes from Les Quatre Vents. Throughout the film we're treated to extreme close ups of tulips and daffodils, tiny white daisies, golden primroses, and towering delphiniums in every shade of purple. The camera often lingers on the blossoms, with just the score as accompaniment, and we get a chance to sit and appreciate the great variety of nature's treasures. The music ranges from a few recognizable classical pieces (by Bach or Debussy, for example) and original music by Luc St. Pierre. It's typically rich with strings, and will sometimes build to a crescendo as we zoom out to get a wider view of the garden. For the most part it's warm and unobtrusive, a very soothing companion to the beauty we see on screen.

A Peek Behind the Design Curtain

Cabot began to realize the potential of the gardens at his family's summer home after a visit to Europe and particularly England. He began to enlarge the gardens at the homestead starting in 1975, but didn't have an overarching vision - he had one idea at a time and worked on that until the next one presented itself. He started by making outdoor "rooms" to make the space feel more intimate. There was an herb garden outside the kitchen, a clay bread oven that could be seen from the dining room, and a guest garden opposite the guest room. As the various "witnesses" describe it, as you move through these outdoor rooms, "the curtain goes up" and you enter another space. Many of the talking heads in the film talk about Cabot's love of theater, and creating surprises for visitors to find as they explore.

For me, the first "real frisson of delight" (as Cabot's son describes it) is a look at the Chinese Moon Bridge, so named because it makes a perfect circle with its reflection in the water. Cabot had already talked a bit about the importance of water. "Water animates a garden. it's that element which just gives it so much more interest. There's just something happening all the time." He had also discussed the idea of alleys and focal points, channeling the view toward a specific spot. The Chinese Moon Bridge is a great embodiment of both concepts, and while I would dearly love to see this in person, the filmmakers captured the site from many different angles and in, what appeared to be, a couple different seasons. This is just one of the many times throughout the film you can sense the skill and patience exercised to show the garden at its best, thoughtfully sharing it with those who might not ever get the chance to be there themselves.

Another example of a view being channeled to a specific spot is the pigeonnier (a tall building at the end of a water feature). It's hard to come up with an explanation that will do it justice, which is why I linked to an image. Cabot particularly liked this part of the garden because it is one of his surprises. He loved that people would discover new things without preparation. It's a theme he came back to often throughout his interviews, and you can imagine him taking people through the grounds, rubbing his hands together and waiting for them to turn a corner and gasp with delight.

A Couple of Really Good Metaphors

Cabot's son talks about the garden as living art "I just love the variety of a work of art that is not static. It's always active. It's always changing. It's always got something to say."

In a particularly affecting passage, Adrienne Clarkson, former Governor General of Canada and a Les Quatre Vents superfan, describes the progression of blooms through the season. "They come in waves - some of the waves intersect and some of them don't. So you have all of these timings that are very coordinated and I think it's orchestral almost. It's like music." This is the point when DeBussy's Clair de Lune joins the score, and Cabot chimes in saying "I like to think of the garden as a series of musical themes, like a sonata, and building to a kind of horticultural climax at, in our case, the end of July when the delphiniums are reaching for the sky and when everything is blooming its head off." The music rises here, as we see scores of delphiniums under the warm sun and it creates the same kind of feeling as when you hear a particularly beautiful passage of music. like Vivaldi's Four Seasons, or see a masterpiece, like Monet's Water Lillies.

I'm sure describing a garden as living art or as a visual symphony is not original imagery, but the way these ideas were presented here struck just the right chord (sorry) with me and deepened my already significant appreciation for the floral arts.

A Bigger Purpose

As the film winds down, we learn about how the Cabots first opened Les Quatre Vents for public visits, and also how/why Cabot started the Garden Conservancy, an American non-profit dedicated to preserving exceptional gardens and landscapes. It's gratifying to see how Cabot recognized he could make a difference - both to those who wanted to experience his gardens for themselves, and to help ensure other beautiful spaces are protected.

The Gardener provided a good respite for me, and a boost of replenishing energy to help me face the world again. As a final touch (frisson of delight) the credits at the end of the film are accompanied by luscious shots of the many flowers that were showcased throughout the movie, and provides the names of each species. It's clear the filmmakers knew who were the true stars of the show.

The Gardener

One Hour, 24 Minutes


Available free on Amazon Prime.