Seasons in Quincy: The Four Portraits of John Berger (2016)
Dir.: Colin McCabe, Christopher Roth, Bartek Dziadosz, Tilda Swinton; Documentary/Essay with John Berger, Tilda Swinton; UK 2016, 90 min.
To call the novelist, art historian, painter and poet John Berger a Renaissance man, is for once no hyperbole. In 1972 he won the Booker Prize for G, and in the same year was the main contributor to the influential BBC series “Ways of Seeing” – at a time when television tried to edify audiences rather than anaesthetising them.
Berger, who died in January of this year aged 90, also wrote film scripts during the mid 1970s, notably for the Swiss auteur Alain Tanner (La Salamandre, Le milieu du Monde, Jonah who will be 25 in 2000). He left London for good in 1973 to spend the rest of his life in the French mountain village of Quincy in Haute-Savoie. Seasons is an omnibus edition of four short films, trying not so much to be a resume of his work, but illuminate his way of thinking.
The first sequel, “Ways of Listening”, directed by McCabe, was shot in 2010, when Tilda Swinton (who wrote the script) visited Berger in Quincy just before Christmas. It is a discourse about friendship and art. Berger and Swinton do not only share a birthday (34 years apart) and place of birth (London), but also fathers who had been active soldiers, fighting in WWI and WWII respectively – and would never talk about their experiences, in spite of being severely wounded. Whilst Swinton is peeling apples for a crumble, Berger sketches her. They also talk about Berger’s “Bento’s Sketchbook” to explain how his mind works – one would have liked greater detail on the subject!.
Christopher Roth’s second part “Spring” is mainly a discourse about humans and animals – no surprise, since Berger’s work is often centred around the relationship between the two. Some of Berger’s texts on the subject are read out, and we see some of his TV work. But the episode is very much coloured by grief: Berger had recently lost his wife of nearly forty years, Beverly, to cancer and Roth’s mother had also died. Feeling very much like a collage, “Spring” is the most emotional chapter of the quartet.
“A Song for Politics”, directed by McCabe and Bartek Dziadosz (also editor and cinematographer of the other parts and director of the Derek Jarman Lab, which co-produced Seasons), consists mainy of a black-and-white TV style discussion between Berger, McCabe, and the writers Akshi Sing and Ben Lerner, about the plight of today’s society in Europe. Berger bemoans the fact that a society which only exists “to do the next deal” lacks totally in historical input. Whilst they agree that old-fashioned capitalism is dead, there is a discussion about what has replaced it. There are rousing songs from the early years of the 20th century, when ‘Solidarity’ was the slogan. Ironically, Berger states, “solidarity is only needed in Hell, not in Heaven”. Paradoxes and contradictions are flying around, and it is not a surprise that the panel does not agree on any solutions.
“Harvest”, directed by Tilda Swinton, is filmed in Quincy and Paris – Berger had to move for health reasons to the French capital, where he would later die. Swinton takes her teenage twins, Xavier and Honor to Quincy, to meet Ives, Berger’s son of his marriage with Beverly. There is a resonance from “Ways of Listening”, as far as father/son relationships are concerned, Ives being an artist. But it is also a tribute to Beverly, who planted a huge raspberry garden, and the children are enjoying the fruit “giving Beverly pleasure”. In Paris, Berger, in spite of his frailty, is keen on teaching Honor how to ride a motorbike, whilst her mother looks on in horror. But “Harvest” feels like a long goodbye between Berger and Swinton: not sentimental, but deeply felt.
Seasons is proof that you only need some existential, ‘old-fashioned’ ideas, and a mini-budget to produce something worthwhile. In spite of its small faults, this essay/documentary makes the audience curious – and if it ‘only’ encourages us, to find out more about the work of John Berger, it has fulfilled its purpose. AS
ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 23 JUNE 2017 | CURZON CINEMAS