'Portrait of a Garden': Film Review

Courtesy of Grasshopper Film
Literally like watching plants grow.

Rosie Stapel's documentary chronicles the efforts of two Dutch men tending to a "kitchen garden" that dates back to 1630.

It's no insult to say that the highly photogenic movie stars featured in Rosie Stapel's documentary are less than human. That's because they're actually such fruits and vegetables as the limequat, Meyer lemon, quince, broad bean, Swiss chard, raspberry, tomato, radicchio, rhubarb, globe artichoke, spinach, iceberg lettuce, sour cherry, horseradish, gooseberry, marrowfat pea and coriander. If the prospect of seeing plants grow seems a thrilling prospect, then Portrait of a Garden, receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere at NYC's Film Forum, should be destination viewing.

For those less interested in horticultural matters, however, this Dutch documentary is akin to, well, watching plants grow. The sort of film frequently described as "meditative," it produces a calming but ultimately soporific effect.

The film's principal figures are Daan van der Have, the sixty-something owner of a lavish Dutch kitchen garden whose literal roots date back to the 1630s, and 85-year-old "pruning master" Jan Freriks, who lovingly tends to it. The film follows the two men and a team of young gardeners through the course of four seasons, which as represented here seem to take place in real time.

Stapel, who wrote, directed, produced, photographed and edited the doc, clearly has an affinity for the subject matter. She follows the two men closely as they make small talk while attending to such duties as pruning pear trees that we're informed will take 15 years to come to fruition (the sequel possibilities are obviously boundless). The trees emanate, by the way, from ones planted by Louis XIV in his garden at Versailles.

With the proceedings generally composed of long, static shots, it comes as a blessed relief when the filmmaker provides an aerial perspective of the large garden. Mostly, we're treated to close-ups of the various crops, depicted with such visual reverence that you'll feel refreshed from the extra oxygen you imagine you're inhaling.

Human matters are accorded less importance, although the conversation between the two men includes the elderly Freriks pondering his mortality and making such observations as "banking will diminish due to automation, but thinning our plums is here to stay." True enough, but do we actually need to see it?

Distributor: Grasshopper Film
Production company: Rose is a Rose Film
Director-screenwriter-producer-director of photography-editor: Rosie Stapel
Composers: Josef van Wissem, Julia Kent, Jean Pierre Guiran, Bioboy & Osiris Trio

Not rated, 98 minutes