Deep in Belgium’s Ardennes forest, life goes on in a small rustic village as it has done for many years. Seasons come and go, farmers work the land and milk the cows, children play in the woods imitating bird song and festivals are celebrated. The village, dominated by the steepled church, seems immune from the problems of the world. Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth’s The Fifth Season (La cinquième saison, 2012) starts in winter with the traditional burning of Uncle Winter, who is accused of a list of crimes.
However, something goes wrong and the ceremonial bonfire won’t light. Whether this is the cause or merely the first symptom of a wider malaise is left unclear. Strange noises are heard in the woods and the seasons refuse to change. Crops fail, the cows won’t give milk, and soon people start blaming each other and especially the outsider Pol (Sam Louwyck), who sells honey from his caravan where he lives with his wheelchair-bound son.
We experience the calamity through the eyes of Alice (Aurélia Poirier) and Thomas (Django Schrevens), two youngsters, who begin the film experimenting with love but it will be a feeling that will be tested in the most extreme ways. An apocalypse film like this is often a fantasy in disguise, but The Fifth Season is a genuine horror story, albeit that the horror is gradually realised. There is no framing explanation and, as in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice (1986), the government response is reserved to unseen jet fighters flying noisily overhead. In fact, the village is left to deal with itself. The road is chaos we are told and most of the villagers prefer the devil they know.
Preceded by Khadak (2006) and Altiplano (2009), The Fifth Season closes the trilogy of films directed by Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth, and brings it home to their native country. The brilliance of the film is the way in which it at first establishes the village as a relatively carefree idyllic place where people still have a genuine rapport with their environment. The film opens with a wryly amusing scene in which a man trying to get his cockerel to sing, and so as this relationship is broken by the magical disaster of time being put out of joint, the loss is genuinely felt.
Humour, tragedy, beauty and horror are all present here, sometimes mixed together in the same scene. During a festival in which the word ‘poetic’ has been used too often to cover a paucity of ideas, The Fifth Season has the power of the best poetry in that it presents powerful resonant images whilst having something genuine to say. Part-fable, part-stark warning, this is a haunting work of exceptional cinema.
The 69th Venice Film Festival runs from 29 August-8 September. For more of our Venice 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.