Nadia Litz’s The People Garden is a curious fable. The 2016 Canadian picture finds beauty in the difficult and ambiguous and there’s a certain haunting quality to it, but it can also be a frustrating experience. Litz, who also wrote the film, both conceals and reveals too much by the time it’s all said and done and the movie’s mystery is less than effective as a result.
At its core, The People Garden is about what happened to a relationship. It plays its strands through a mystery that sets the protagonist and the audience adrift, but there’s something very organic at the core – even when the characters are less than likeable.
Dree Hemingway stars as Sweetpea, a too-cool-for-school woman who heads to Japan with the intentions of breaking up with her rock-star boyfriend Jamie (François Arnaud). It seems like a hell of a trip to make, but Sweetpea is adamant and she arrives only to find that he’s not there to pick her up at the airport.
She snags a ride with Mak (Jai West), who drives her to the forest where Jamie is shooting a music video. There’s a problem: he’s missing. What’s more, nobody really seems to give a damn. The video director (James Le Gros) says something about how Jamie can go missing if he wants, while the video star Signe (Pamela Anderson) is involved as well.
While the movie mostly engrosses us from Sweetpea’s point of view, problems arise when Litz opts for omnipresence. Subtitles inform us of what Japanese characters are talking about, even when the lead character has no clue and seems adrift in a foreign land. This provides the audience with too much information and undermines the mysterious circumstances she encounters.
While it’s not explicitly stated, Jamie’s music video appears to be constructed in Aokigahara. Japan’s infamous suicide forest was also the setting for the unfortunate horror 2016 film The Forest, but Litz’s interest in the setting is less overt. It becomes a symbol for how tortuous the concept of Sweetpea’s quest is, like there’s an endlessness in her decision.
Sweetpea isn’t the easiest protagonist to like and that’s to her credit. She’s kind of a jerk. She imagines herself as very clever and she’s not overly patient when she arrives on set and starts hunting around for Jamie. At times, she squeals out for Jamie like a child. Hemingway never drops the artifice and that makes her character trying and engrossing at the same time.
Cinematographer Catherine Lutes does a nice job with the infinite trees of Sweetpea’s mission. Shots linger like ash on the end of a cigarette and characters are allowed time to really sink into the scenes. The aesthetic, clean yet sometimes dreamlike, gives the movie its fable quality even when the uncertainty of the screenplay leaves more questions than answers.
Anderson is fascinating as Signe and one imagines a treasure trove of backstory to her character. Litz renders her as a Fellini-esque muse, flowing like a bird in the breeze. She’s Claudia Cardinale on a collision course to nowhere and Anderson does a lot with a little, turning minimalistic lines and potentially well-worn blurts into a curiously compelling performance.
But for all the fascinating pieces, The People Garden is not without issues. While Litz does a nice job drawing the unknown, parts of the conclusion actually feel too compact and satisfying. The glorious doubt of Sweetpea’s unreal odyssey feels like it deserves less, like the answers should endure in the trees.
And it can be hard to get a sense for why any of The People Garden matters, which speaks to the other end of the spectrum. The audience is thrown in the deep end with Sweetpea and forced to live with her preposterous decisions, even as they drag her to Japan and Aokigahara and to whatever lies inside Jamie’s soul. It can be a slog, to be sure, but there are rewards for those willing to look.