In “The Sound of Trees” (“Le bruit des arbres”), writer-director Francois Peloquin portrays rural Quebec’s dramatic shift to unbridled economic and ecological change via a coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old teenager seeking more out of life than taking over his father’s sawmill.
“The way I think about Quebec’s culture is it’s in an adolescent state because it’s turning its back on its regions. If you don’t like where you’re from, you turn your back,” Peloquin told CanScreen, as his debut feature had its world premiere at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
The atmospheric drama, now on release in Quebec and headed to the festival circuit elsewhere in Canada, challenges our understanding not only of the forest’s place in the Quebecois imagination, but also of the environmental and economic dilemmas confronting the French-speaking province.
Peloquin’s script, co-written with Sarah Levesque, unleashes two forces struggling for the hearts and minds of the Gaspesie region – big timber conglomerates looking to buy up smaller sawmills, and local farmers and foresters who are keen to retain their traditional ways.
In the middle of rural Quebec’s cultural rupture and transition is Jeremie, a teenager played by newcomer Antoine L’Ecuyer. Over one summer, he finds himself caught between the forest that sustains a small sawmill run by his father, Regis, (Roy Dupuis) and the road, which promises a better life in Quebec City.
Rather than be content to work in the forest, Jeremie is drawn to fast cars, women and hip-hop culture, a lifestyle his frustrated father blames on a local drug dealer.
Jeremie and Regis represent a dual personality, two conflicting halves of a seemingly doomed Quebecois regional culture that strain in opposite directions. Regis wants to stay, while Jeremie wants to leave.
To develop his coming-of-age storyline, Peloquin selected lead actors with the exceptional skills and talent necessary to animate their characters through body language and movement.
“I didn’t have to cast Roy (Dupuis). He was the best choice for the role,” Peloquin explained.
“I knew I had a lot to say through action and movement, without dialogue. And when I cast Antoine (L’Ecuyer), I was also looking for that, a really intense body that can tell a lot,” he added.
Dupuis said he relished playing an intense and rough character through movement, while also sensitively conveying emotions using sparse dialogue.
“As an actor, and also someone who watches movies as an audience, I tend to feel if you can show it, rather than say it, it’s a plus. Cinema for me is imagery first, and photography,” he explained.
The “Sound of Trees” has ample dialogue, but it’s peripheral to the dramatic action. The audience is encouraged to follow the body movements and facial expressions of the main characters: stir-crazy Jeremie and his father, Regis, who sees his family sawmill business under threat from an encroaching multinational.
In one sawmill scene, Regis repeatedly cuts planks of wood while a representative of a giant timber company promises him a quiet desk job if he agrees to sell his family business.
“I like that Regis is playing with the noisy saw to shock the salesman,” Peloquin explained.
Dupuis added that the scene suggests key information about the implied confrontation and the tension in the film between the big sawmills and the smaller players that they are buying up and taking over.
“The important thing is (Regis is) making wood, in the right way, for my character,” Dupuis said. “He’s using what he does best, and what he believes is the way to do things, to shut the other guy down.”
“I won’t have anything to do (without the sawmill business). I’ll be with people who don’t know the difference between wood types,” he added. “I love the wood. So you you’ll never buy me.”
Dupuis’ character conveys all that in silence.
For Regis, it’s also about keeping faith as a free-spirited father with a traditional way of life in the Gaspesie.
“Regis has the responsibility of taking care of a kid, but he, like most of those men in the region,” Dupuis explained, “has some freedom because they don’t have to wear suits and ties. More than most people in the cities, or that work in offices, and that’s probably why I wanted him to be more free in his movement.”
Peloquin also uses long takes in “The Sound of Trees” for dramatic and narrative effect.
“We were often shooting long scenes,” he said. “I had to rely on what the actors feel through all of the scene, and what we are all listening to in terms of chunks of information that inform feelings and movements and a direction.”
In one extended take, Jeremie gets out of his car, takes a beer from a friend, walks away and joins another friend amid well-choreographed chaos.
Then there’s a close-up of kids, followed by a medium shot, a long shot down a bridge to establish the wider summer night setting, and finally a close-up of Jeremie before he leaps off the bridge and into the water, to whoops and cheers.
As his friends become increasingly impressed with Jeremie’s energy and aggressiveness, so does the viewer.
“I always think of the shot in a way that it provides its own editing. So sometimes I have to start wide, then come closer and closer. Sometimes I come closer, I pan away, give other information, and then come back. And other times the actors move around to give me close-ups one at a time,” Peloquin said.
For the Quebec director, screening his debut feature in Karlovy Vary is a dream come true.
“It’s unexpected. It’s a chance and I feel honoured. I didn’t dream of doing cinema when I was a kid. This thing came up later when I was more mature, and felt confident I could do it. Now I’m very pleased with the result,” Peloquin said.
“The Sound of Trees” is released by K-Films Amerique in Quebec.