In her review of “La Donation,” Liz Braun over at canoe.ca claims that the film is “very much about geography, so it leaves you feeling super-Canadian.” I get a kick out of the term “super-Canadian.” I picture groups of people flocking to theatres, taking in Sara Mishara’s beautiful and subtle cinematography and having to shift position to make room for the swelling of chests. Afterward, the crowd embarks on a united mission to battle injustices transpiring in the Great White North, drawing their powers from the unspoiled lands of Abitibi-Ouest, avoiding the kryptonite of American market expansion (lest doctors can’t helicopter in).
I’ve never visited western Quebec, but I’ve been on the Ontario latitude, on the part of the Trans-Canada Highway that seems to carry on forever through groves of trees spattered along the rocky regions of the Canadian Shield. The county of Abitibi-Ouest, where “La Donation” is primarily set, has a population of about seven people per square kilometre. Just north sits the massive Jamésie county, bigger than the state of Arizona. Almost 6.6 million people live in Arizona. A shade under 15,000 live in Jamésie.
I relate this geographic data to ilustrate that parts of Canada are far, far more desolate than most of us who live in big cities can imagine. When small-town physician Dr. Yves Rainville (Jacques Godin) says that “everything here is far apart,” he ain’t kidding. In essence, “La Donation” is about other things that are far apart, characterized fundamentally by our understanding of each other. Even those crammed into apartments resting in rows along busy city blocks can be miles apart in thought, feeling, ambition and desire. In the small French Canadian town of Normétal (pop. 981), the distance is overwhelmingly apparent.
When Dr. Jeanne Dion (Elise Guilbault) of Montreal shows up in Normétal to take over Dr. Rainville’s medical practice, she is given a tour of the wilderness. Formerly a mining town, Normétal has fallen on hard times, and not a trace of the operations remains: “The wilderness won out,” Dr. Rainville explains. He introduces Jeanne to several patients, including one the good doctor delivered decades ago, now dying of cancer. An elderly woman loses her husband and moves into his hospital room, waiting for God to take her, too. And Rainville smiles at Jeanne’s decision to refill an Ativan addict’s prescription, telling her to consider it a “welcoming gift.”
Jeanne can’t understand how Dr. Rainville is able to let himself get so close to his patients. Neither is she certain that she can move to Normétal entirely, though she is often told that it took some people years of living there to decide to settle on its lands. Jeanne is fooled by the far-apartness of the town, and is told by the local baker, Pierre (Eric Hoziel), to take a closer look at the landscape to gain a kind of transcendental perspective. He fantasizes about pioneer life, the stuff of Susanna Moodie, whose everyday diaries sold to great acclaim in the old country. And he has submitted to his legacy as the son of a baker, born into his trade. Without him, Abitibi-Ouest would go without bread.
I enjoyed the quality of absence in Émond’s film. Jeanne’s budding relationships with the townspeople develop well, with every failure leading to more important successes. After so much mental caretaking in trying to equate God with the art of medicine, Jeanne’s role as the inheritor of an important practice is revealed to be as utilitarian as the baker’s. Toward the end of the film, she holds a baby in her arms, and Émond is content to let the image sit and resonate. Because of Jeanne’s care, belief and compassion, life is allowed to continue, even in a place where so little life exists.
“La Donation” is the third film of a trilogy, succeeding Émond’s “La Neuvaine” and “Contre Toute Espérance,” which operated on themes of faith and hope respectively. “La Donation” is about charity, concentrated in the giving over of Jeanne’s time, skill and emotion to the citizens of a wilderness she can’t commit to calling home. Having not see Émond’s previous films, I fear that my impression of his work is incomplete. I can only comment on how “La Donation” comes together as a whole. It does so quietly and convincingly, glazing over its unanswered questions with the mysterious sublimity of the rural Canadian landscape.
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