A remote Francophone Ardennes village is perpetually stuck in winter in “The Fifth Season,” an effective and gorgeously lensed parable from Belgium-based helming duo Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth. After making what felt like very Euro arthouse takes on life in Mongolia and Peru, in “Khadak” and “Altiplano,” respectively, the filmmakers winningly apply their simultaneously operatic and anthropological style to a more familiar country that’s known for its surrealist bent. High-profile Venice competish slot will ensure the helmers’ widest exposure yet, though the image- rather than dialogue-driven pic will remain niche fare commercially.
Interestingly, “Season” feels like a much more coherent and mature work, even though it shares quite a few plot points with the directors’ 2006 Venice Lion of the Future winner, “Khadak,” which also started in winter and involved cattle being removed by authorities against the owners’ wishes. (The three films form a loose trilogy of sorts.)
“Season” was shot in rural Weilen, some 60 miles southeast of Brussels, and though it features contempo cars and agricultural equipment, the Internet, phones and TV are conspicuous only by their absence, ensuring the hamlet, surrounded by fields and woods, is totally cut off from the rest of the world.
The first reel sees two slightly otherworldly-looking adolescents (Aurelia Poirier, Django Schrevens) share a first kiss in an abandoned quarry, while villagers prep for a ritual goodbye to winter. A pile of Christmas trees has been topped by a straw effigy of a man, and the village has been dancing and drinking before it’s time to light the pyre. The honor to start the blaze falls to a blustery youth (Pierre Nisse) who has just turned 18, though, inexplicably, the bonfire fails to light. Without a ceremonial sendoff, the village finds it’s become stuck in the same dark, cold season forever.
Ironic chapter headings (“Spring,” “Summer”) suggest time does pass, but snow keeps coming, seeds won’t sprout, cows stop giving milk and the bee colonies of the Flemish village apiculturist (leather-faced thesp Sam Louwyck) have died, an ominous sign the rest of the rural community doesn’t take well, to put it lightly.
Food becomes scarce and people resort to eating insects or selling their possessions or bodies in exchange for provisions. It’s never explained what kind of ill has befallen the climate and people, though Brosens and Woodworth use the setup only as an excuse to examine group behavior and rituals in a microcosm.
A menacing undercurrent rears its head as the situation becomes increasingly dire. The directors niftily suggest how what seemed like an antiquated ritual devoid of meaning at the start of the film can suddenly roar back to blazing life again in times of crisis, with the community needing a ritualistic guard against evil.
Finding exactly the right balance between larger group dynamics and individual stories — the handful of characters with whom we become familiar are the most knowing, credible and blackly humorous bunch that populated a small Low Countries town since the protags of “Antonia’s Line” — the film also mines a clear vein of surrealism, with people appearing with the beaked masks of plague doctors, further underlining this is first and foremost an allegory.
As in their previous work, Brosens and Woodworth demonstrate an impressive eye for composition, combined with a sharp use of sound and an atypical score, the latter two both conceived by regular collaborator Michel Schoepping. Belgian d.p. Hans Bruch Jr., who also shot Gust Van den Berghe’s black-and-white “Little Baby Jesus of Flandr,” here demonstrates a similar kind of sensitivity for Belgian landscapes that’s equal parts Tarkovsky and Brueghel, with the entirely washed-out colors further underlining the realistic and metaphorical bleakness of the endless winter.