Virpi Suutari's documentary Garden Lovers is a fascinating study on art and relationships. The slice of life film, which focuses on middle class life in Finland through the vector of gardening, is exquisitely crafted. Almost too exquisitely, actually.
Just seconds in, I was struck with how well-made the images I was seeing were. Was I looking at a high-budget commercial for some multinational corporation? The frame just looked too good, too beautiful, soft and muted and finely lit. The camera movement and angles were weirdly perfect. A film about gardening involves things like dirt and physical labor, but even the gritty was idyllic, set to a charming score.
So many documentaries are closer to the style of hard news, filled with pertinent information, raw visuals, and agendas. Garden Lovers is closer to an art film than a documentary, though it's really both; it's a documentary that is also a work of art. No shot looks unplanned, though it might have been. The exquisite gentleness of the film speaks favorably about the skill of the creative team and the preparation, which makes us care about something — hobbyist gardening — that doesn't seem like something to care about.
This juxtaposition makes the film interesting. The story of a simple way of life is being told in a way that appears simple but is actually meticulous. The film offers a slow pan of a man engrossed in potted plants on a table while a woman and her baby perform acrobatics in the background. The slow, uneventful bucolic life is punctuated with ambition — will this year's pumpkins bring home a championship title? We learn that the typical Finnish homicide is between friends after drinking and glimpse a very different life a crime scene investigator lives when he's not gardening.
Appearances and creative vision aside, what's the viewing experience like? Well, it's slow. Garden Lovers is not about anything particularly important or awe-inspiring, yet it's not boring. It's relaxing in the uninterrupted, methodical way that weeding is (but with less pressure on the knees). "Forget clothing stores. We don't need many clothes. It's more natural to buy plants and bushes," says a nudist gardener. This connection with nature and the peace that exists there is passed on to the viewer for the duration of the film. It's not riveting and breathtaking as some other films are, and it doesn't have a plot. The driving force is simply living.