“The Gardener” will either inspire your inner green thumb or leave you so discouraged you’ll never bother with your yard ever again.
Sebastien Chabot’s documentary traces the story of Les Quatre Vents, an elaborate 20-acre garden in Quebec made famous by the efforts of celebrated horticulturist Frank Cabot. Over the course of 88 minutes, Chabot leads us through both the garden’s history and its expansive layout as we get a feel for how the influence of Cabot’s landmark effort has grown beyond its borders.
Drawn mostly from interviews recorded in 2009 with Cabot (who passed away in 2011), his wife Anne, his son Colin and other horticulture experts, “The Gardener” explains how Les Quatre Vents sprang from a 90-square-mile tract of land Cabot’s family purchased for $50,000 in the 1800s, and how after spending his childhood summers on the property, Cabot’s interest in gardening blossomed (pun kind of intended) sometime after his marriage to Anne in 1949.
The garden is truly a long-term project, and “The Gardener” intercuts talking-head interview clips with extensive footage taken from around the garden — sections of the garden built around a Chinese Moon Bridge, a Japanese tea house, a ravine spanned by a “Temple of Doom”-style rope bridge and a “living room” built out of bushes trimmed to look like furniture.
But “The Gardener” also spends considerable time not just showing us the result of Cabot’s efforts but explaining the philosophies behind it. Throughout the garden, Cabot explains his precise strategy in designing sight lines and a specific layout that will inspire surprise and delight in his visitors, explaining that “order animates a garden.”
To Cabot, gardens are personified entities that “like to be seen,” and the design of Les Quatre Vents is meant to be musical, “like a sonata … a horticultural symphony.”
Most of his peers concur, echoing Cabot’s appreciation for the power and beauty of the garden, and early on, “The Gardener” suggests that it’s the process of gardening that first helped Cabot recover from his early struggles in the business world and eventually transition into his public career.
“The Gardener” moves at a leisurely pace, no doubt meant to evoke the experience of visiting the garden itself for the audience (Cabot suggests that the best way to experience such a garden is to do so alone, or with a quiet friend). The footage, as you might expect, is full of greenscapes and would likely be well appreciated by local audiences familiar with places such as Red Butte Garden near the University of Utah campus.
The documentary’s narrative structure is pretty thin, eventually working toward a summary of Cabot’s efforts to spread his influence to other gardens, primarily through the formation of a conservation conservatory. As a documentary, it doesn’t break new ground (another pun!) so much as it digs deep (sorry, last one) to explore the ins and outs of a lifelong effort. Audiences may leave feeling they’ll never approach Cabot’s level of expertise, but they may conclude they have enough time to throw together a little vegetable garden after all.
“The Gardener” is rated G; running time: 88 minutes.