Saturday, August 16, 2008


THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES ("L'homme qui plantait des arbes," 1987, Canada, Frederic Back, story by Jean Giono)
When I think that one man, one body, and one spirit was enough to turn a desert into the land of Canaan, I find after all that a man's destiny can be truly wonderful. But when I consider the passionate determintation, the unfailing generosity of spirit it took to achieve this end, I'm filled with admiration for this old, unlearned peasant, who was able to complete a task worthy of God.

The simple story of Eleazard Bouffier, a shepherd who passes his days unnoticed, planting acorns in an arid, desolate highland in Provence, rendered by Canadian animator Frederic Back in what look like pencil crayon sketches come to life, an airy cinematic impressionism. There comes a moment when the curve of a treeless hilltop proves to be the brim of a man's hat. Another when unrelieved sparsities of brown and grey give way, at last, to richly exuberant colours: we hear of the death of the man's wife and son, played out before us in extreme simplicity, a still and sorrowful moment in a modern dance piece; then for a very long time we watch from a respectful distance as this solitary man painstakingly plants his seeds; only then, once it has been earned, does the screen finally blossom with colour. Back thinks like a cinematographer: one joyous sequence puts us in mind of a cheerful Tarkovsky, beginning with a close-up of the narrator's face, pulling back to reveal a man nodding to sleep on the bus seat in front of him, then tracking out the window to follow dogs running alongside as the bus makes its way down a dusty village road. When we hear of a grove of birches planted during the battle of Verdun, brilliant foliage bursts forth like artillery shells exploding on the barren earth.

This man's solitary task of planting acorns and envisioning oaks spans decades, and I was struck by the similarities between the labour we see so carefully depicted and the labour of the animator who depicts it: both are long, quiet obediences in the same direction. A perfect match of medium and story, all particularity and persistence.

"Sow your seed in the morning,
and at evening let not your hands be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well."

This quiet tree shepherd finds a particular quality of happiness in his single-minded, unhurried task, spanning decades, and there is something in his story that appeals especially to artists. As I work away in my little 120 seat basement theatre doing plays I care about – no empires to be built, no big splashes to be made, no worlds to take by storm – Eleazard Bouffier inspires me: he embodies an approach to the work that sustains me not only day to day, but over years. The only rewards that matter are intrinsic. You do it because it's there to do, because it seems like someone ought to do it, because you can. Because it's needed. Because you want to.

There is something deeply Christian in this man's humble persistence, in a life of quiet generosity that brings resurrection to "a dry and weary land where there is no water" – the narrator describes him as "one of God's athletes." But we can't ignore the narrator's other quiet insistence that this is the work, first and foremost, of a man: that Providence is not always provident, and that human creators may do more than mimic the Creator, they may outdo Him. Is there a soft-spoken hubris to this film? Is it up to man to restore what God neglects, to build a thing so well that Providence cannot destroy it?

This gentle film is never strident in putting forward its divine paradoxes, but such understated contrasts and contradictions give the film tremendous subtlety and complexity. Mostly is content to tell its simple story, leaving us to make what we will of this Mystery at the centre of all creative work, where God and Nature and Man weave their way together through an ancient, elegant, intricate dance that brings worlds into being.


No comments: