Review: ‘Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf’

Greenery reconfigures public space in the work of Piet Oudolf

3 mins read

Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf
(USA, 75 min.)
DIr. Thomas Piper

The sun is out, the birds are chirping, and summer is in the air. The merciful respite from long, cold, Canadian winter is finally here. Why not go inside, sit in the dark, and admire nature?

Doc fans can take pleasure in the great outdoors and avoid the ticks, bees, and children with the refreshingly green Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf. This relaxed, easygoing, and somewhat milquetoast film profiles the work of gardener/horticulturist/designer Piet Oudolf and his work devising green space that endures all year long. The Dutch gardener shows off the tricks of his trade in this folksy documentary by Thomas Piper.

Five Seasons spans a year in Oudolf’s work from one winter to the next as he prepares a major garden installation at Hauser and Wirth Somerset, an arts centre in England. Oudolf demonstrates his process creating maps and prints for the layout of the garden, and he details the different plants and flowers that populate a diverse bed. (He estimates the garden will feature over 50,000 bulbs.) The work for this elaborate four-season bed of green inspiration offers the through line of the film as Piper observes Oudolf planning and overseeing the development of the garden in between trips that highlight his designs around the world.

A jaunt to New York, for example, spotlights his work in the city’s High Line—his most famous garden—a rail trail that offers a cut of green space through the city. This extended stretch of grass, flowers, and greenery reconfigures the image of public space in an increasingly dense city. One can sniff the freshness in the air with the revitalizing splash of nature in the concrete jungle.

Oudolf’s work is admittedly a better character than he is, however, and Five Seasons meanders while searching for humanizing moments to develop his persona. A little cheese shopping is fine, but much of the film simply observes the gardener flipping through books. Piper sort of glances at them, but the filmmaker doesn’t seem nearly as interested in the literature as Oudolf is—and for a viewer, watching someone else read a book is less exciting than watching grass grow. (Thankfully, though, the greenery that blooms in Five Seasons is lovely.)

While the film isn’t quite as dynamic or warming as, say, Sébastien Chabot’s The Gardener about the lush English-style garden of the late Frank Cabot in Charlevoix, Quebec, Five Seasons nevertheless offers a worthwhile lesson on the necessity of green space in public areas. Both films invite audiences to do more than sniff the flowers: they create relationships between people and nature to inspire audiences to care for their planet.

Five Seasons opens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on May 25.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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