Round about the sixth day of a film festival I’m usually pretty ready for something spare, enigmatic, beautifully photographed and mildly apocalyptic and the Belgian film The Fifth Season turns out to fit the bill nicely. Here we have an isolated farming community surrounded by stunning if not always welcoming scenery who seem to rub along well enough with each other until one year they’re struck by a mysterious blight. Crops fail, the bees stop producing honey, the milk from the cows dries up and everything becomes a tad fraught. As the seasons change with no improvement in circumstance a scapegoat is sought and some of the younger villagers gain some harsh insights into how human behaviour can curdle in a crisis.
A bare description of Peter Brosens’s and Jessica Woodworth’s film makes it sound like an obvious descendant of The Wicker Man, what with the tradition-bound locals and their sinister bonfire-related rituals, but it’s a fair bit artier than that and its fascination with both muddy textures and the consequences of fundamental life-sustaining energies being removed reminds me more of Béla Tarr’s heroically gloomy The Turin Horse, though it’s nowhere near as gruelling to watch. It actually strikes quite a pleasing balance between naturalism (these people, with a couple of exceptions, generally look and talk as regular folk do) and visual invention: every so often a prop or location or farmyard animal is used in a way so striking it successfully distracts you from the underlying bleakness of the situation. It’s often quite funny too, particularly in the recurring scenes of one man struggling to connect with his rooster, though it’s no surprise that the film doesn’t have a notably sunny ending. Whether something as out on a limb as this will ever find an audience outside of people like me with nothing better to do on a Tuesday lunchtime than hang out in an arthouse cinema is a moot point, but I was glad to have seen it even if I couldn’t really begin to fathom out some of the more obscure events shown.