The Fifth Season
It’s just about this time of year when the average resident of Belgium begins to think, “will spring ever get here?” It does, though, every year. Eventually.
But what if it didn’t? What if spring simply never arrived?
That is the premise of La cinquième saison (The Fifth Season), the new film by Flemish director Peter Brosens and his American wife Jessica Woodworth. The pair have come home with the film, which follows Khadak (set in Mongolia) and Altiplano (set in the Andes), shooting it where they live, in the Ardennes.
The Fifth Season begins with the traditional burning of the Christmas trees in a small farming town. But the trees will not burn. As the villagers and the outsider Pol – a perfectly cast Sam Louwyck – watch in confusion, the giant pile of dry trees simply refuses to catch fire.
It’s the first omen of what’s to come: seeds don’t germinate, cows stop giving milk, temperatures won’t rise, trees begin to die. It is perpetual winter.
An environmental theme links the couple’s three films: the relocation of nomads in Mongolia, the poisoning of villagers in Peru, man against nature (and then against man) in Belgium. “A trilogy was unintentional, but it has evolved naturally,” says Woodworth on the day of the film’s premiere in Brussels last week. “But it’s an ongoing concern of ours on both a thematic and an aesthetic level, man and his environment. We live in a time of emergencies on so many levels: ecological, financial, political. Certainly in Europe. There is an absolute need to rethink how we live.”
There are certain parallels to be drawn in The Fifth Season about nature fighting back: You have abused me, and now I’m done with you. But it’s how the helpless townspeople, who have lost their means of income, react to this situation that creates the film’s frightening intensity and make up its harrowing events.
“We’re very vulnerable” to the elements and to nature, says Woodworth, “and yet we have this kind of arrogant assumption that we can control and manage it – and predict it, to some degree. As we are seeing more and more frequently, there are colossal changes happening that have a huge impact on communities. And these are unpredictable and uncontrollable.”
The Fifth Season is slow moving, featuring long, wide-angled shots, which bear a striking similarity to pastoral landscape painting. It emphasises, says Woodworth, “the insignificance of the individual inside the greater picture. Sustaining the mystery of nature was really important to us. It can make the viewer quite uneasy, and so can the story itself.”
It can also impress: The film, which was largely financed by the Flanders Audiovisual Fund, has won eight awards in the festival circuit, including two at the Venice Film Festival.
Like their other films, The Fifth Season stars mostly amateurs but is anchored by two professional Flemish actors: Louwyck, who plays a beekeeping nomad (whose bees have disappeared, naturally), and Peter Van den Begin, a villager whose rooster has stopped crowing. The unforgettable opening scene features the recognisable star of Frits en Freddy and Allez Eddy! trying to teach the rooster to crow again.
Laughs Woodworth: “What other actor would you put facing a rooster?”