The dry humor that surrounds Familiar Ground (En Terrains Connus) is just that, dry–a lifeless, suburban enclave of Quebec where the most interesting amusement comes in the form of a giant blue inflatable something or other in front of a car dealership. This is not to say the film isn’t good, far from that actually. It is very much internalized, leaving the characters to meander through their humdrum lives interacting with one another on such superficial and unemotional levels that the pure existence of the lifelessness becomes somewhat fascinating.
The film focuses on a pair of siblings, who have no real relationship. A simple cup of coffee in a seemingly abandoned cafe comes across as the closest moment they have ever had between themselves. The older sister, Maryse, is dealing with a bad marriage–one she desperately wants to break free of and from the personality of her husband we completely agree with her decision (cue that dry, dark humor that will permeate the entire film). Her brother, Benoit, lives at home with their widowed father and has a hard time starting his snowmobile. His intellect is in question throughout the film, but it is not stupidity but simpleness that is his curse. He has a girlfriend, who has a son that detests him. They argue, quite a bit, and Benoit cannot let go of whatever it is that keeps him rooted in his parent’s home to move in with her–perhaps it is her brat of a son (again, humor). When a man from the future, a mere few months–no spaceships or nifty futuristic gadgets–visits Benoit to warn him of a pending disaster involving his sister he is put in an awkward place of decision making. Benoit could easily distrust the man from the future and go about his lame existence or take action, in any way he can, to try and stop the disaster from happening. This may be a dark comedy, but death and pain are not items served up for laughs. Director Stéphane Lafleur is always balancing the line between introspective dramatic piece and dark humor qualities in her direction and writing, as she is also the screenwriter. The result is one of a calm and focused film that leads a viewer down a path that is lined with heavy burdens, all in a package of emotional detachment.
A most interesting area of the film is the use of ambient noises Lafleur employs. Each action, place, movement, environment, and so on has the sound amplified–drowning out at times the very dialogue between characters. A pill bottle being closed, eggs boiling in water, heavy machinery running, a metal detector beeping, the engine of the snowmobile, a plunger in the sink, the television–every sound is focused upon, turned “up” so to speak. Amidst the boring landscape of winter in Eastern suburban Canada there is life, in the form of the inanimate. It is an interesting choice and definitely calls into question the desire for LaFleur to emphasize the emptiness of her characters minds, the blankness of emotion, or inability for expression. When an egg boiling, for example, is so loud it overtakes all thought in one’s mind than how determined was one to actually think after all?
Familiar Ground comes across as a simple film, with slower than normal pacing and performances so subdued you wonder if one is acting at all. They are, and this film is not simple. Upon reflection it brings with it much deeper emotions, a good amount of dark humor, and most importantly a tale of sacrifice in the face of fate. The final scene is one that shocks you, for all of the right reasons, and makes a viewer realize watching Familiar Ground was entirely worth it.
** Winner, Best Narrative Feature, 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival–In bestowing Stéphane Lafleur with the Narrative Award, the Jury stated: “An entire tree sticking out of a fireplace…a beaten-up snowman…an operatically dancing inflatable blue dude…the anything but familiar images of Familiar Ground won’t soon be forgotten. In a strong narrative competition this year, this was the singular vision that stood out the most.” **
The gifted Quebecois filmmaker Stephane Lafleur has a rare affinity for unhappy, isolated ordinary people and a rare ability to make their miseries both funny and oddly magical. He’s in total control of his craft in Familiar Ground—every shot has a purpose—as he tells the story of an unhappy wife, Maryse, trapped in a bad marriage, and her slacker brother Benoit, who still lives at home with his cranky, widowed father. Their bleak lives—not helped by the constant snow that falls around them—get an unexpected jolt when a man who proclaims himself from the future (“Not too distant,” he quips, “just September”) warns Maryse of an accident that may befall them. This droll, deadpan comedy quietly builds to its surprising conclusion.
(Canada, 2011, 98 mins)
In French with English subtitles
North American Premiere
Directed By: Stéphane Lafleur
Executive Producer: Francois Reid
Producers: Luc Déry, Kim McCraw
Screenwriter: Stéphane Lafleur
Cinematographer: Sara Mishara
Editor: Sophie Leblond
Featuring: Francis La Haye, Fanny Mallette, Sylvain Marcel, Michel Daigle, Suzanne Lemoine