The Fifth Season: Venice Review

Belgium-based filmmaking team Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth are distinctive visual stylists whose latest work will please their admirers while continuing to confine them to the arthouse margins.

The third dramatic feature from former documakers Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth is a surreal meditation on nature in revolt against man.

VENICE – The narrative features of former documentary filmmakers Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth are all distinguished by an arresting sense of place. Having traveled across the Mongolian steppes in Khadak (2006) and headed to Peru to scale the Andes in Altiplano (2009), their third collaboration, The Fifth Season (La Cinquieme saison), brings them home to Belgium and a picturesque village where all is definitely not well.

But while this surreal fable about nature turning on arrogant man is brimming with images of startling beauty and unusual locations captured with an elegant compositional eye, it’s rendered distancing by its ponderous tone and overload of cryptic symbolism. There’s exquisite film craft here, along with some wonderfully strange scenes, but it’s burdened by creeping pretentiousness and a stultifying pace.

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The setting is an isolated hamlet in the Ardennes, where locals talk to their poultry and a young couple, Alice (Aurelia Poirier) and Thomas (Django Schrevens), call to the birds and to each other across the snow-covered forest. Alice and her family run a modest dairy farm. As she sits on a swing suspended from a tree in the village, the bizarre specter appears of a giant paper-mache farmer, trailed by his wife and their cow, marching silently up the hill.

Working with accomplished cinematographer Hans Bruch Jr., the filmmakers favor a tableau style, with spare, sedate camera movement and action unfolding within a static shot, often framed from overhead or way down low. This creates quite a mesmerizing visual spell, especially in the early scenes. Shots of trees in the wind or torrential rain beating down on the forest are haunting.

The town festival on the hill is an end-of-season ritual during which a wicker man called Uncle Winter is burned atop a massive bonfire to banish the cruel season for another year. A scene here of formation country dancing on a large wooden platform in the snow is among the film’s most captivating interludes. But when the pyre won’t burn, it serves as a signal that the cycle of nature is out of whack and winter is going nowhere.

Spring rolls around, but only as far as the calendar is concerned. A drifter father, Pol (Sam Louwyck), and his paraplegic son Octave (Gill Vancompernolle), merrily sing along to The Magic Flute as they drive out to collect honey from their small apiary setup. But the bees have gone, leaving nothing. All over the farm community, similar dire signs appear. Seeds don’t sprout, cows stop producing milk, and the military arrives to remove the contaminated livestock. An urgent town meeting is called, where Pol announces ominously, “When the bees disappear, the rest follow.”

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By summer, an all-out eco-disaster is taking place, with dead birds littering the forest, fish going belly-up in the river, and massive trees spontaneously falling, along with the occasional unseasonal dusting of snow. Kind-hearted Thomas attempts to share his parents’ food supplies with those less fortunate, but relationships among the villagers steadily deteriorate, eventually poisoning even his bond with Alice.

Autumn brings open hostility. The villagers’ suspicions toward the outsider Pol incite them to ugly intervention, while Alice, now stripped of all innocence, watches in horror. The eruption of violence in a film so dominated by stillness is powerful, with Michel Schopping’s score growing steadily more discordant.

The writer-directors make only the sparsest use of dialogue, but a readily decipherable narrative seems not a chief concern of their image- and mood-based storytelling. Both the cause and outcome of all this chaos are suggested only in oblique references to man’s indifference, with undertones of religious paranoia, superstition and violation of the land. While a closing shot of milling ostriches set to thunderous Bach insidiously suggests that questionable farming practices will continue, extracting precise meaning here doesn't really seem the point.

The film is a brooding symphonic elegy, and some festival audiences no doubt will find its intensity stirring and its allegorical mysteries fascinating. But the darkly poetic work is too studied to be genuinely unsettling -- too self-important in its artfulness. However, The Fifth Season may break new ground by giving extensive screen time to a steaming rooster turd.

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Venue: Venice Film Festival (In Competition)

Production companies: Bo Films, Entre Chien et Loup, Molenwiek Film, Unlimited

Cast: Aurelia Poirier, Django Schrevens, Sam Louwyck, Gill Vancompernolle, Peter Van Den Begin

Directors-screenwriters: Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth

Producers: Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth, Diana Elbaum, Sebastien Dellove, Joop Van Wijk, JB Macrander, Philippe Avril

Executive producer: Craig J. Flores, Shawn Williamson

Director of photography: Hans Bruch Jr.

Production designer: Igor Gabriel

Music: Michel Schopping

Costume designer: Claudine Tychon

Editor: Jessica Woodworth

Sales: Films Boutique

No rating, 93 minutes