A quartet of essay film portraying the great writer, artist and critic John Berger
Given the passing of John Berger just last month at the age of 90, it’s difficult not to view The Seasons in Quincy through an elegiac lens, and at times the film feels suitably mournful. But its peculiar structure – it’s split into four largely discrete sections with some overlapping imagery and collaboration – results in more of a loosely experimental, impressionistic essay that celebrates various aspects of Berger’s life, the influence of his work, and his thoughts about both the past and the future. In fact, Seasons in Quincy is really about time, inevitable change, and the persistence (or lack thereof) of memory. Suitably, its vignettes are themed around the turning of the seasons in the British-born expat’s beloved home, the titular village in the French Alps.
Directed by Colin McCabe, Ways of Listening features the famed art historian, author, artist, “radical humanist” and cultural critic reminiscing with his long-time friend Tilda Swinton in between shots of Berger shovelling snow amid the rustic landscape of the farm. The more experimental Spring is far more focused on Berger’s writing on animals and peasant life than on himself, likely because director Christopher Roth and his crew arrived in Quincy shortly after the death of Berger’s wife Beverly. A Song for Politics (also directed by McCabe along with Bartek Dziadosz) is the most conventional of the four segments, as the self-avowed Marxist takes part in a roundtable discussion on political resistance and the perniciousness of mass cultural forgetting.
The film’s coda, Harvest, is by far the most intimate and familial of its parts. Directed by Swinton and prominently featuring her own twin teenagers, its emotionally evocative home-movie style offers a portrait of Berger as a sort of cool intellectual granddad. While at times Swinton’s involvement threatens to distract from the film’s actual focus, Berger has enough natural charisma to stop the proceedings from simply devolving into The John and Tilda Show.
Made over the course of five years, The Seasons in Quincy is boundary-pushing yet accessible, artful yet plain-spoken, just as Berger was. “Maybe we live in a time when the truth is most easily told in song,” he muses. It may not technically be a song, but this often lyrical rumination on one of the most celebrated cultural figures of our time seems like a fitting, and truthful, tribute.
The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger screens at Glasgow Film Festival: 24 Feb, CCA, 3.30pm | 25 Feb, CCA, 8.45pm
Follow Michelle Devereaux on Twitter at @mldevereaux