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SXSW Review: The Fifth Season

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[From March 9th – 17th, Flixist will be providing coverage from South by Southwest 2013 in Austin, TX. Prepare yourselves for reviews, interviews, features, photos, videos, and all types of shenanigans!]

The Fifth Season plays off one of my many irrational fears: what if the entire world suddenly refused to yield anything useful? By that I mean cows refusing to give milk, mass bee colony die-offs, chickens no longer giving eggs, and the soil becoming so sterile that even simple seeds can’t sprout or find purchase. Desperation would be a precursor to a slow, malnourished death.

While the film is billed as one about the spring failing to show up, what’s shown is more like a continual state of apocalyptic winter. There’s potential for something haunting here in the idea, and there are some memorable images and moments from The Fifth Season which, at their best, play like Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse by way of the original version of The Wicker Man.

PSIFF (2013) - The Fifth Season Trailer - Mystery HD

The Fifth Season (La cinquième saison)
Director: Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth
Rating: TBD
Country: Belgium
Release Date: TBD

Rather than being set in a large city, The Fifth Season takes place in a small agrarian community that lives off the land. First we’re shown something amiss: a man talks to his rooster at the table, urging the bird to call at dawn. Instead, all the bird produces is a steaming turd. Then there’s Alice (Aurélia Poirier) and Thomas (Django Schrevens), the son and daughter of two farmers. They wander the winter woods in a weird game of young love/foreplay — they make birdcalls to one another and then tenderly snog there among the trees.

There’s a lovable quirkiness about this first quarter of the film that takes place in the winter. It reminded me a lot of the movies of Aki Kaurismäki, and there’s even a brief song and dance number that wouldn’t feel out of place in one of his films: the town together does a line dance/jig. The camera holds and, as lingering shots can often do, there’s something hypnotic about the image. By letting the moment persist, small details can magnify, and repetitions/cycles become more compelling. This is a town that, at the beginning, is brimming with an idyllic sort of rural life that’s all about dependable patterns, so maybe this formal choice makes sense on more than just an artful level.

The dance is all part of a ritual: each year the town holds some sort of pagan rite to mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring: a gigantic papier mache farmer, farmer’s wife, and heifer are marched to the top of a hill, as is a totem of “Uncle Winter” (think a naked scarecrow). Atop the hill, Uncle Winter is burned and the rotation and renewal of the Earth is complete. But not this time. This time, not even pine needles will catch flame, and the moment is the first of many eerie occurrences.

The rest of The Fifth Season chronicles the unstoppable decline of the world as seen from the cloistered setting of this town. The only sense of the rest of the world we get is the brief appearance of troops who commandeer the livestock, suggesting that the government is already taking measures to address the coming famine. Occasionally there’s the sound of a fighter jet screaming across the sky, an ugly substitution for the sound of birds.

In these moments of decay, Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth find some striking images of desolation: Alice looking blankly before a dark stone wall as souring milk begins to cascade down the surface; the empty beehives of Pol (Sam Louwyck); the jars in one household filling with a repellant meat substitute; the vacant desolation of Pol’s handicapped son Octave (Gill Vancompernolle), who’d previously been full of smile and song. The young lovers eager for birdcalls and company have suddenly become more desperate as well, as has the owner of the rooster, whose attempts to coax his bird are briefly comic until we see where they lead.

As desperation gives way to desperate superstition, The Fifth Season‘s sinister nature becomes apparent, and the remainder of the movie plays in that mode. But there’s a certain distance of engagement in the film as the shots linger and as the non-seasons wear. The focus is less on this turn of the plot and the machinery that gets the film there and more on tone, mood, a sense of impending. The long shots still have their power, especially when small moments of activity are suddenly noticed in frame, but other times the long shots feel like the sort of Bergman parodies that appeared in Woody Allen’s Love and Death.

What’s maybe most peculiar about watching The Fifth Season was finding my own patience for the film fluctuating. There were some points where I was absolutely with its languid rhythms and was undeniably enthralled. And yet at some points as the world fell into the brown and grey tones of the wasteland, I felt detached from what was happening. When the movie turns into an episode of The Twilight Zone or one of Steven Millhauser’s first-person-plural short stories, I was back in, but part of that was because I wished the movie had integrated all these shifts better.

I guess based on all the name-checking/namedropping I’ve done in this review, The Fifth Season reminded me of things I liked better than the movie itself. And yet I think The Fifth Season does latch onto those irrational fears of mine, which are more about the process of dying than just death itself. As a work of imagery about dying, it’s an achievement, though I’m unsure of it as a successful film. Come winter, I’ll probably remember The Fifth Season more for the artful potential of individual moments rather than the work as a whole.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.