The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits Of John Berger Review

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A documentary on the artist, writer and cultural critic John Berger, told in four parts loosely themed around the different seasons in his home town of Quincy.

★★★★★

There’s an assumption, on the part of this portmanteau documentary, that viewers will already be familiar with its subject: the artist, critic and writer John Berger, who died in January. Admittedly, his shadow hangs long over left-wing art criticism, but after 40 years of self-imposed exile to the titular small village in France, he may not be quite the household name that the filmmakers imagine.

A worthwhile experiment in documentary filmmaking, but not an entirely successful one.

The first segment, directed by Colin MacCabe and featuring Berger’s long-time friend Tilda Swinton, is a chummy but highfalutin chat about connection, heritage and their military fathers. Like the rest of this film it is slow, gently scored and sometimes obscure, but there’s real emotion and some humour in the friendship between the two. Christopher Roth’s second section is even more elliptical, since Berger was unavailable for filming after the death of his wife, and becomes a loose connection of musings on his connections with animals. MacCabe and Dziadosz’s third part is a bone-dry, black-and-white discussion of politics with younger critics and political philosophers, and Swinton finishes the film with an optimistic fourth segment that looks at passing on a legacy to the next generation.

It is uniformly meditative and thoughtful, and does give an insight into Berger’s philosophy, but it doesn’t work particularly well as an introduction, nor serve as any sort of biography or overview of his work. Roth’s section, inevitably without its subject, is least successful, sometimes feeling like an art student effort, and the third part will struggle to hold the attention; debate works better in person or on paper, and since the participants largely agree it lacks much bite. The two sections that focus more on Berger as a man, with family and friends and a dining table, are better, looser and more human, and do more to put his high mind in an earthy context. Taken as a whole, it’s a worthwhile experiment in documentary filmmaking, but not an entirely successful one.

Well-meaning and sometimes emotional, this is often too low-key for its own good, and might have benefited from a little more traditional documentary context and shape.