Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Seasons: The Winged Migration Team on Dry Land

There was a time when Europe was covered in verdant forests. Apparently, they have not pursued nature conservancy as proactively as we have in America, but at least they gave us the Renaissance and the Enlightenment while converting vast areas of land to agricultural and urban uses. Fortunately, Jacques Perrin & Jacques Cluzaud, the filmmaking team behind Winged Migration and Oceans, could still find enough surviving forest habitats for their latest nature documentary, Seasons (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Among nature documentarians, Perrin & Cluzaud have probably crafted the most inventive strategies for filming wild animals in their natural habitats. Shooting on land should be easier than the sea and air, but they continue to capture some arrestingly up-close moments. However, their ambition also extended to the film’s narrative structure this time around. With their regular co-screenwriter, St├ęphane Durand, they use the changing of the four seasons to represent the passing of 80,000 years in the forest. They also let the film evolve into an environmental morality play, with the wasteful folly of man represented in impersonal dramatic recreation scenes.

As one would expect, Seasons works best when it focuses on the animals. There are a number of scenes involving newborn wolf and fox pups, who are just as cute as wild beasts can ever get. There are also extended sequences with bears, which are always cinematic. Perrin & Cluzaud cannot resist filming some of the birds that make the forest home, but for the most part, the film centers on highly relatable furry mammals.

However, the scenes involving mankind are (not so surprisingly) often didactic and awkward. At one point, they suggest the mustard gas employed during World War I wreaked havoc on the local bird populations. From what I understand, the soldiers getting gassed weren’t so crazy about it either.

Wisely, the distributor opted to subtitle the solemn narration, because it most likely comes off less unintentionally funny via the printed word than through overly dramatic proclamations. Frankly, there are also one or two man-as-the-most-dangerous-predator scenes that make us doubt the film’s ASPCA disclaimer: “no animals were hurt …”

Regardless, when Perrin & Cluzaud stick to what they do best, Seasons is quite impressive. The large battery of cinematographers (including Winged Migration and Oceans alumni Michel Benjamin and Laurent Fleutot) all deserve awards consideration. However, its allegorical layer is just too pretentious and clunky. Yet, most viewers will still argue the wolf pups make it worth seeing. For fans of dazzlingly produced true nature films, Seasons opens this Friday (11/25) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Landmark Sunshine downtown.