Cannes 2024 review: The Moving Garden (Inês Lima)

“Whether as a lark on themes of human connection in a world plagued by disconnection or an ecological fable, The Moving Garden is in dialogue with much of contemporary Portuguese cinema.”

Some earthly Edens persevere in today’s world, beautiful and majestic, monuments of Nature unspoiled. And yet, they’re not unencumbered by destructive forces. Human hand, the touch of industry, is a latent threat. Even if the naked eye can’t perceive such tensions in action, the film camera certainly can. Consider the opening to Inês Lima’s The Moving Garden, a dreamy short film set in Portugal’s Serra da Arrábida Natural Park. As embodied by Victor Neves Ferreira’s grainy cinematography, the director’s gaze is eager to soak up the beauty of the landscape, from shimmering waves on a beach full of people to the stony mountains that reach to the heavens. The rock is covered in greenery and botanical loveliness that pops on screen, like paint splatter over a celluloid canvas, a thousand and one vibrant colors.

It’s an idyllic vista, made more so by the analog register whose very texture imbues a sense of impermanence to the moving picture. It’s almost nostalgic. Though, is it the nostalgia of people or of the land itself? Moreover, there’s something beyond mere splendor in Lima’s film. A rhapsody of cuts juxtaposes Nature’s sprawl with industrial works on the park’s periphery. Growths of steel and smoke, their heavy presence casts a shadow over the flurry of imagery, as if the factories were titans looking over a paradise of flowers and beach-hot bodies. Signage limiting certain areas, delineating private property by rusty chains, proliferate through the park, reminding us of the encroaching commodification of Nature itself. And once again, despite the luminous frames, a shadow inches itself closer to the heart of The Moving Garden.

From a dream transmuting to potential nightmare, Lima switches tones for the central part of her short film. The wordless tone poem gives way to awkward comedy, as the camera follows a pair of botanical guides taking a group of hikers through the park. In its way, the audience’s gaze is being guided in tandem, attention directed, falling on fauna and flora whose beauty far exceeds the monotonal descriptions voiced by the two women. Indeed, The Moving Garden keeps cutting between their over-rehearsed spiel and a less-than-captive audience, working within a sense of humor so dry it’s surprising a forest fire doesn’t ignite on the spot. However, there’s also lust within the presentational tedium, a jostle of desire between a guide and a hiker, both youthful, as full of life as the greenery surrounding them.

As the possibility of unfulfilled desire materializes before the viewer, the film’s playfulness takes a turn to the fantastic. In the garden of Arrábida, flowers move and pulse with erotic longing. They glow like displaced stars and follow human movement as if they were another audience, looking on from within the screen. Irradiated, the plants take the film by soothing storm, setting the curse of Sleeping Beauty upon the populace when an innocent bud is plucked from its place in the ecosystem. Coupled with the opening salvo of ominous montage, one can regard these events as Nature’s revenge on those who ravage her beauty. The landscape is under attack, so it fights back in whichever way it can, even a floral trance that does little more than return a blossom to its original place – a victory so small as to be insignificant. Then again, these powers may be a consequence of industry, mutants born from the intrusion of Man where he has no place.

On the other hand, Lima’s fluid tones inspire a polysemic quality in the film. The Moving Garden supports an adversarial tension between its human characters and the space they inhabit, admire, violate. However, such darkness feels antithetical to the breeziness of text, the cast’s stilted performance, and the spark of adolescent romance that defines the piece’s shape. Going further still, the collective sleep imposed by the flowers creates a communion between people whose consciousness prevented their togetherness. In the case of our two desiring bodies, the event even provokes a Buster Keaton moment of self-disconnection, the material and the immaterial separating. As in Sherlock Jr., the mind wanders away from flesh, doing in dream what could not be accomplished in waking life. Freed from themselves, people taste joy, shining like their flower sisters, if only for a moment.

Whether as a lark on themes of human connection in a world plagued by disconnection or an ecological fable, The Moving Garden is in dialogue with much of contemporary Portuguese cinema. Indeed, if one considers the four shorts that represented the country at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, these ideas appear transversal to all, manifest in distinct ways according to a given artist’s priorities. Since they appear in different sections, presuming a programmer’s intent from their similarities seems unwise. Instead, The Moving Garden and its short-form comrades reveal national preoccupations manifest in film, capturing a moment in time, its anxieties, and reveries like only cinema can.