Monday 11 September 2017

We Don't Go Back #62: La Cinquième Saison (The Fifth Season) (2012)

To begin, some brief observations about La Cinquième Saison (The Fifth Season):
  1. It's the first Belgian film I've really registered having seen. I'm not proud of that, although looking up significant Belgian movies, I found Calvaire (2004) which I reckon I really have to cover in this project sometime.  
  2. My DVD copy is a Belgian import. I don't think it has a UK release. 
  3. It was directed by Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth, who are apparently better known as documentary filmmakers.
  4. It stars Aurélia Poirier (Alice), Django Schrevens (Thomas), Sam Louwyck (Pol) and Gill Vancompernolle (Octave). The children and the outsider get the top billing, which is unusual and significant with respect to how you have to look at the film.
  5. What is up with the ostriches? No, seriously, no clue. Why the ostriches? 
  6. Fred the Chicken was one of my favourite characters. I was rooting for Fred. 
A pair of young lovers call each other with the hoots of owls. They meet, perform the hesitant rituals of courtship in an abandoned quarry.

A village prepares for a festival to drive away winter. They dance, pull out festal costumes. It's mostly good humoured, comic, even. Everything is hope or happiness.

Apart from Thierry. He's a jerk.

He's alone in that. Thomas and Alice tell him as much; Thierry is sitting by them at the town celebration, and he calls outsider Pol and his disabled son Octave a bum and a vegetable as if it's funny, and Alice and Thomas aren't having it.
Thomas: Tu es affreux, Thierry.
Thierry: J' affreux, heuh?
Alice: Non, t'es seul.1
But he's just turned 18, so it's up to him to light the pyre where they burn Uncle Winter, personification of the season, in effigy, and usher in the spring.

The pyre won't light.
La feste.
Spring is still Winter. And then Summer is Winter.

Nothing grows. The seeds remain seeds. The cows stop giving milk, the bees die. Soldiers will arrive and take the cows away at gunpoint. It's not just here, they say. This is everywhere. The whole world has stopped.

As the growth of the land stops, so too does the growth of human warmth. The friendships of the people with each other wither like the plants do, die like the fish.
Luc: Solidarité est ephemère.2
We see through the eyes of the children: elfin Alice and rangy Thomas, children of leading voices in the community; Octave, wheelchair-bound son of Pol, the one Flemish man in a Francophone town and the inevitable focus of the villagers' suspicion and violence.

Alice rails against the slow death of the community; Thomas practices kindness on a personal level; Octave alone maintains hope. I don't think that it's an accident that these are the three responses of good people to evil times.
The sin of the town lies in making the closed-in one, the suspicious one, the bully, the one who treats the outsider and his fellow people with suspicion and hate, the harbinger of the year. He gives the coming year its character, he poisons the world.

And when the townsfolk adopt a solution, after a year of misery, it's the wrong solution, because they're no longer capable of the right one. All they can conceive of is violence, of rounding on the outsider. It doesn't work. And in the end, the cries of the children, two plaintive owl cries that end the film, echoing its beginning, aren't enough to mend things.
A solution.
La Cinquième Saison has these chapter headings, each named for a season, but while each season is still Winter, the chapters have their own character, becoming progressively darker. As the film progresses, a vein of sunny, absurdist humour turns pitch-black. So at the beginning, you see Pol larking about with Octave. People dance. There's good natured banter at the festival.

But then, later, you see Thomas's dad Luc scraping flies off flypaper and talking in a pretty matter-of-fact way about the best way to eat them. The unnamed owner of Fred the Chicken is framed early on as comic relief, and then there's this darkly comedic scene with Fred and his owner, and the last we see of Fred (spoilers: Fred cops it, of course he does) isn't funny at all, but the scene nevertheless ends with this absurd flourish, as if to say, all right then, laugh at this. In the final act, the humour is gone altogether.

Fred le Poulet, nous vous connaissons à peine.
La Cinquième Saison is beautiful to look at. It has that same schtick that Wes Anderson has, of long, static shots, tableux where the camera, wide in focus, allows things to happen in front of it, but unlike Anderson, displays a bit of creativity in the way the shots are framed, and familiar, everyday scenes are sometimes framed in a way that is so alien you sometimes have to work out what it is you're looking at. Still, at times the composition of the frame starts to smother the message. The static compositions sometimes slow the pace right down to the glacial, and at the end, when it gets properly grim, that makes it very hard to watch, and not exactly in the  right way.
While there isn't so much dialogue, what there is tends to be very on the nose, very much to encourage you to understand that this is the meaning of the film, this is important dammit. Come the end, it settles for turning flat-out surreal, and the final shot of the film comes out of nowhere, and I still don't have a clue what the hell that final shot was about.

Maybe La Cinquième Saison takes itself that tiny bit too seriously, but that's not the worst thing you can say about a movie. It's classic folk horror, both in its paganism and in the way the village closes in on outsiders (the happening is the result of a botched ritual; unusually, it's the happening that comes at the beginning and the film progresses from there). It's a rural apocalypse (comparisons will be made with The Turin Horse, count on it) that hints to something larger, something worldwide, but which is pinned down as the fault of a community choosing the child of the coming year to be a bully and bigot: you make this your symbol, and this is what you get.


Thomas: You're horrible, Thierry.
Thierry: I'm horrible, am I?
Alice: No, you're alone.


Luc: Solidarity is fleeting.