'Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf': Film Review

Design for living.

Thomas Piper’s documentary showcases the work of the Dutch garden designer whose many international projects include New York's High Line.

During the most spontaneous sequence in Five Seasons, the accomplished garden designer Piet Oudolf is driving through Texas Hill Country to see the wildflowers, and gobsmacked by their beauty. "Just like paintings," he enthuses. The same could be said of his influential work, although his preference is for perennials that aren't conventionally pretty, and palettes that consider grays and browns colors too — a wabi-sabi approach to gardens that embraces not just bright blossoms but decay.

As he follows Oudolf's travels through Europe and the States to completed projects and works-in-progress, director Thomas Piper illuminates the striking, seemingly rough-hewn beauty of his subject's landscapes. It's a curated wildness; "I put plants onstage," Oudolf says. "And I let them perform."

Evocatively scored by David Thor Jonsson and Charles Gansa, and handsomely shot by the director, the film is, at its strongest, an inspiring sensory immersion in that performance, one in which the (mostly unidentified) plants are the stars. A complex, dimensional portrait of Oudolf never quite emerges, though, and the brief doc, however lovely, lacks an essential dynamism that would make it truly compelling.

Piper opens the film, intriguingly, with the scratch of markers on drafting paper as Oudolf sketches a new garden plan. His multihued drawings are a delightful cross of simplicity and sophistication (and the eventual subject of an exhibition), and Piper effectively connects the studio work to the field work, when the selected shrubs and herbs and grasses are set in the ground. His emphasis on the changing seasons highlights the ways the gardens adapt and thrive.

The film regards not just the seasons of the year but the seasons of Oudolf's life. "It's not September anymore," the septuagenarian says with bittersweet self-awareness, just before he's shown wielding a scythe to prepare a garden for renewal.

His biography is distilled to a few essential details, the most germane being the early-1980s auction purchase by him and his wife, Anja, of land in Hummelo, a village in the Netherlands, that set the somewhat floundering young husband on his professional path. The property, with its gardens and nursery, now draws visitors from around the world. Oudolf calls Anja "the big force behind me," but although she appears briefly in the film, there's no sense of their life together. Perhaps tellingly, Oudolf notes that his formative years, spent helping out in his parents' restaurant, immersed him in the world of work rather than family life.

Scenes of him being interviewed, or in conversation with colleagues and collaborators, are more explanatory than revelatory. In terms of what makes Oudolf tick, only a couple of sequences scratch the otherwise gentle surface: the scenes of him as a dazzled tourist in Texas, and a moment in a supermarket when he answers a deli counterman's joking question about cameraman Piper. "Is he following you?" the clerk asks Oudolf, who responds, "I'm leading him."

Whatever drive and struggle and friction got Oudolf where he is today can only be guessed at, but as the film captures him, well established and sought-after, his delight in his gardens, and in nature itself, couldn't be clearer. "The longer you're here," he says at one point, "the more you see."

The doc's visions of Oudolf's work, in gorgeous close-ups as well as from drone-photography angles and time-lapse perspectives, will undoubtedly send some viewers to his books and to the gardens themselves. Though it's not entirely satisfying, Piper's film is a welcome reminder of the power of seeing directly, rather than through the mediating layer of our ever-present screens.

Distributor: Argot Pictures
Director-producer: Thomas Piper
Director of photography: Thomas Piper
Editors: Thomas Piper, Sara Pellegrini, Rachel Shuman, Corinne van der Borch
Composers: David Thor Jonsson, Charles Gansa

In Dutch and English
75 minutes