Wildlife documentaries used to be fun and educational diversions: while watching cute animals frolic in the wilderness, you also got to learn about the magical ‘circle of life’ that made all that frolicking possible. Well, unless it was a Werner Herzog wildlife documentary — then you got to see the food chain in action, up to and including human beings. But I digress.
Alas, those happy days are long gone, and such films now trigger nothing but feelings of dread and ennui in your scribe’s tender heart. In the middle of our planet’s sixth period of mass extinction – a period for which human beings themselves are responsible — how is it possible to enjoy up-close-and-personal footage of guileless bear cubs and innocent squirrels without feeling more than a twinge of guilt?
Despite it all, filmmakers Jacques Cluzaud and Jacques Perrin have managed to make a wildlife documentary suitable for the 21st century. Previously responsible for 2001’s Oscar nominated Winged Migration, the duo’s newest feature, Les Saisons (Seasons) opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Nov. 25.
At first, Seasons appears to be a fairly typical cinematic paean to nature – and it’s certainly possible to enjoy it on those terms. But there’s also a message about the Anthropocene era that becomes clearer as things proceed.
A ‘history’ of the European forest shot in France and in Poland’s endangered Bialowieza Forest (home to the bison seen in the film), Seasons explains how the continent was once covered in lush foliage populated by a wide variety of wildlife. This period is recreated in stunning detail, lulling viewers into a false sense of complacency regarding Europe’s contemporary conservation efforts.
It’s a place filled with hedgehogs, owls, bears, storks, lynx, foxes, and countless varieties of birds. About all that’s missing from the film is Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood – but there are plenty of big, bad wolves on hand (with apologies for being judgmental about wolves). For the first half of the film Mother Nature’s cup runneth over.
Cluzaud and Perrin dub this the Golden Age of the Forest, a period that began roughly 12,000 years ago and ended after the ecological balance began to be disturbed by the first hunter-gatherers. The film then switches gears as it depicts the slow but steady intrusion of homo sapiens into this Edenic paradise, beginning with settlers who lived in relative co-existence with nature and ending with the clear cutting, industrialization and climate change of the last few centuries.
Before the depressing bits at the end (and the filmmakers plea for a truce between nature and mankind), though, there’s a good hour’s worth of truly breathtaking wildlife footage. Some of it appears to be have shot by aerial drones, but the majority is ground-level footage, beautifully filmed and brilliantly edited.
For those who appreciated Winged Migration, you’ll get similar mileage from Seasons. One caveat: while the film is suitable for older children, you may went to leave the toddlers at home – unless you want to spend time mopping up tears and explaining how and why predators go about their business.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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