'The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger': Berlin Review

The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Scattershot but not without interest.

The English artist and thinker John Berger is portrayed in four shorts directed by Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth, Bartek Dziadosz and Tilda Swinton.

A quartet of ruminative shorts together comprise the documentary The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, directed by his friends and admirers Colin MacCabe (Ways of Listening); Christopher Roth (Spring); Bartek Dziadosz and MacCabe (A Song for Politics); and, no doubt the most famous of the bunch, chameleonic actress Tilda Swinton, involved in the project as a screenwriter, executive producer and as the helmer of the closing short, Harvest.

Structured, as the title suggests, around the four seasons and mostly filmed in and around Berger’s rural Haute-Savoie home in Quincy, France, this is a something of a mixed bag that’s part primer on the life and work of the artist, critic, novelist and poet — most famous for his 1972 BBC series and book Ways of Seeing and his Booker Prize-winning novel G. — and part anecdotal insights that will be more rewarding for those already familiar with his output. Though it premiered as one 90-minute documentary in Berlin, tucked away in the grab-bag Berlinale Special section, these Four should be able to travel to galleries, alternative art spaces and VOD platforms as individual shorts as well.

Things start off with Ways of Listening, the title an obvious riff on Berger’s own work, directed by literary critic and film producer MacCabe (also a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, which is listed as one of the film’s production companies). The 26-minute short was filmed in the week before Christmas way back in 2010, when Swinton, who is credited with the segment’s screenplay, visited her friend of 20 years in the snow-covered Alpine village he called home. They share silent army fathers, the same birthday and birth town and a curiosity to really fathom the world around them. While Tilda peels apples in preparation for a crumble, they reminisce about their fathers and talk a little bit about his work.

The entire short remains conversational in style and even Swinton’s occasional voiceover doesn’t add much in terms of more profound insights, with her statement that suggests, for example, that Berger’s book Bento’s Sketchbook is “about how his mind works” never explored or contextualized. With a mournful score and edited in a staccato rhythm with long fades-to-black between shots, the film manages to turn a kitchen table conversation into something self-consciously arty, though the recipe of the crumble that closes the short brings things back to earth.

The title of German director Roth’s Spring might seem pretty self-explanatory but actually belies a complex if far from exhaustive engagement with Berger’s ideas in a relatively swift 19 minutes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his home in a tiny rural community, Berger has written extensively about animals and the relationship between humans and animals, which Roth explores mainly in connection to death, with both Berger’s wife Beverly and Roth’s own mother having passed away just before or while making the film. As elsewhere, there’s something of a collage approach here, with texts heard and extracts from past TV and film appearances edited into the main narrative to suggest Berger building on his own ideas over time. If Spring finally feels scattershot, some of the fascinating ruminations certainly linger.

A Song for Politics was (supposedly?) shot during the summer by MacCabe and Dziadosz, the latter also an editor and cinematographer on some of the other segments, as well as the director of the Derek Jarman Lab, the film’s second production company. The main event here is a talk show-style debate between Berger, MacCabe and three younger artists, shot in black-and-white. As the title suggests, its main focus is politics and topics such as the end of capitalism and the deleterious effects of information overload are touched upon. But in its brief, 20-minute running time, it’s hard to do more than skim the surface of such fascinating paradoxes as the fact that it’s being claimed capitalism is dead and yet there seems to be no other solution that could replace capitalism.

Harvest, directed by Swinton and starring her teenage twins, Xavier and Honor, is the doc’s most bucolic and gently associative entry, with Berger having stayed behind in Paris for health reasons while the Swinton kids visit Quincy to meet Yves, Berger’s artist son. The film functions as a loose illustration of themes discussed in earlier segments and as such is the most dependent on being shown in context. Some of the recurring ideas involve fathers/parents and the verticality of time in small communities, where the transmission between past and future generations is paramount for survival. It's a rather lightweight closing segment that nonetheless suggests how Berger's thinking is relevant even in the most quotidian of situations. 

Taken together, the shorts offer some scraps on Berger the man and the artist and thinker without really supplying a full overview, while also exploring some of his main preoccupations in ways that would benefit from at least some prior knowledge of his work. If anything, the curiosity of viewers unfamiliar with his work should be piqued. 

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Production companies: Derek Jarman Lab, the University of Pittsburgh
Directors: Colin MacCabe (
Ways of Listening); Christopher Roth (Spring); Bartek Dziadosz, Colin MacCabe (A Song for Politics); Tilda Swinton (Harvest)
Screenplay: Tilda Swinton (
Ways of Listening); Christopher Roth (Spring)
Producers: Lily Ford, Colin MacCabe
Executive producers: Steven Connor, Tilda Swinton (
Ways of Listening); Tilda Swinton, Adam Bartos, Vijay Vaidyanathan (Spring, A Song for Politics, Harvest)
Director of photography: Filipa Cesar (
Ways of Listening); Bartek Dziadosz, Christopher Roth (Spring); Bartek Dziadosz (A Song for Politics)
Editors: Christopher Roth (
Ways of Listening, Spring, A Song for Politics); Bartek Dziadosz (Harvest)
Music: Simon Fisher Turner (
Ways of Listening, Spring, Harvest)
Sales: Derek Jarman Lab

Not rated, 90 minutes