“The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger” eschews straightforward chronology or biographical comprehensiveness in depicting its subject: the writer, painter, and art critic best known for his 1972 Booker Prize-winning novel “G.” and his influential four-part BBC series “Ways of Seeing.” A quartet of short films touching upon various aspects of Berger’s life, this non-linear anthology (structured around the year’s seasons) is something of a tease, raising intriguing topics and insights before turning frustratingly cursory and skimpy. Tilda Swinton’s primary role in the project notwithstanding, its appeal won’t extend far past those already familiar with Berger’s “radical humanist” Marxism and copious work on human experience.
First unveiled as a “Berlinale Special” screening at last February’s Berlin film festival, “The Seasons in Quincy” is most notable for the creative role assumed by Swinton, who stars in the first segment, “Ways of Listening”; offers narrated readings for its middle essays; and writes, produces, and directs its closing chapter, “Harvest.” In the opening short, directed by Colin MacCabe, Swinton and Berger discuss their years-long friendship at his rural Quincy home (in eastern France’s Haute-Savoie region), where he’s lived for decades alongside his (now deceased) wife Beverly. As Swinton notes, their shared birthday, Nov. 5, is also Guy Fawkes Day, which has helped them forge a bond of kinship rooted in rebellion. And their subsequent, convivial conversation — which takes place in winter 2010, as Swinton peels apples and Berger sketches her portrait — soon also concentrates on the fact that both grew up with remote fathers reluctant to talk about their military service in world wars.
Examining communal human experience is central to Berger’s work, and also the focus of Christopher Roth’s “Spring,” which fixates on Berger’s fascination with animals and their relationship to man (a connection also of interest to Jacques Derrida, who’s heard in archival interviews and narrated writings). Here, a more collage-style approach is employed, aimed at capturing Berger’s free-flowing intellectual inquisitiveness about life and the myriad tendrils interconnecting everything and everyone. However, Roth’s contribution raises and then discards stimulating ideas with a swiftness — and via an aggravating mélange of narrators, random cutaways, tangents, and credit-sequence split-screens — that leaves the entire endeavor feeling as if it were just skirting along the edges of Berger’s deep, diverse artistic oeuvre.
Those two opening efforts are nonetheless more compelling than “A Song for Politics,” which finds Berger engaging in a television chat alongside three writers and host Colin MacCabe (who’s also this short’s co-director, with Bartek Dziadosz). Here, the participants’ desires to critique capitalism and discover a new mode of political “storytelling” are delivered via haphazard soundbites that largely go uninvestigated. Its inclusion allows “The Seasons in Quincy” to at least more directly address Berger’s lifelong Marxism, but like the bounty of old television clips that decorate its 20 minutes, it feels like a compendium of quick-hit footnotes regarding his socialist principles.
The concluding “Harvest” proves the most successful of these four episodes, if only because it by and large sidesteps any attempt to provide a primer-like study of Berger. Detailing a get-together between Berger and Swinton’s teenage twins Xavier and Honor in Paris and, before that, between the two kids and Berger’s son Yves at his own farm, it’s an easygoing snapshot of cross-generational dialogue that finds small, touching ways to evoke the artist’s in-depth way of viewing the world, as through Yves’ comments about his father’s attentiveness to the human toil behind a natural landscape’s beauty. Swinton’s warm, unassuming direction generates an intimacy that does much to compensate for the overarching project’s wispiness — although even her clear affection for Berger can’t ultimately make “The Seasons in Quincy” more than a for-aficionados-only companion piece to his pre-existing paintings and writing.