Wisconsin Film Festival Spotlight: “The Auction”

Le DŽmantelement

Tickets for the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival went on sale Saturday, and each day between now and the start of the festival on April 3, I’ll be zooming in on one of the more than 140 films playing at the festival. If you have suggestions about films you’d like to know more about as you’re planning your festival experience, let me know in comments.

The Auction” (Sunday, April 6, 11:30 a.m, UW Cinematheque, and Wednesday, April 9, 1:45 p.m., Sundance Cinemas)

The official English-language translation of French-Canadian filmmaker Sebastien Pilote’s new film seems fairly benign, if accurate. But the literal translation gets more deeply at the emotionally wrenching heart of the film. “Le Demantelement”; “The Dismantling.”

For the first 10 minutes or so, we could be watching a documentary, as farmer Gaby (Gabriel Arcand) rises at dawn to tend to his sheep in the pens, the soft strains of the Grateful Dead playing on the soundtrack. It looks like a hard and solitary life (Gaby is all alone, aside from a neighbor kid who helps on weekends) but a rewarding one, and Pilote’s camera lingers on the beauty of the farm, the sun warming the rolling fields.

But still waters run deep for Gaby. His wife divorced him because she couldn’t handle farm life, and his two daughters moved to Montreal. One day, the oldest daughter visits and announces she’s getting a divorce. She asks her father for a loan to help keep her house, and Gaby agrees.

Unbeknownst to her, Gaby plans to finance the loan by selling the farm — everything, from the land to the house to the equipment, even the sheep. At first, it seems like the ultimate sacrifice for his daughter — some have compared the film to “King Lear,” but it reminded me at first of that children’s book “The Giving Tree,” where the tree gives away every piece of itself for a boy.

But is it such a sacrifice? The taciturn Gaby, masterfully underplaye by Arcand, turns out to be a much more complex character than we first think, and as he opens up to his children, we learn his true feelings about the farm. It’s been a godsend and a burden, and he may be using his daughter’s need as a sort of escape plan.

It’s an escape that comes at great emotional cost, and it’s unclear if he still has anything to escape to. “The Auction” is a piercing and elegaic film about an old man who made choices long ago, wondering if he still has to live by them.

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