In the first few minutes of the documentary Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf, the renowned landscape designer guides visitors around the gardens at his home in Hummelo, Netherlands. When he alerts them a camera’s lurking about, someone asks, “Is he following you?” Oudolf replies, “I’m leading him.”
That’s a perfect way to frame director Thomas Piper’s film, now playing in New York and expanding to other North American cities this summer. Five Seasons is a loving, reverential work that tags along with Oudolf for a year, from one fall to the next, and wonderfully captures a man whose imposing physical presence belies a gentle, introspective spirit and boundless wonder for the world’s flora. (He could easily have walked out of an Ingmar Bergman film.) Together, we explore American wildernesses and European gardens; visit some of his public landscape masterpieces, including New York’s Battery Gardens and High Line and the Lurie Garden at Millennium Park in Chicago; and watch as he designs the Hauser & Wirth’s Durslade Farm site in Bruton, England, then experience it as a functional public space.
More than the work, though, the film tracks Oudolf’s love of plants. In one of the most memorable episodes, the now-73-year-old is a kid at Christmas when encountering the chromatic eruption of wildflowers in the Texas Highlands. But his passion runs so deep even something as common as ragweed earns wide-eyed reverence. This affinity emerged almost accidentally. In his 20s, he took a position at a garden center and felt he discovered his purpose “when I met plants,” he says in the film. That led to moving his family (wife, Anja, and two children) to Hummelo, working with Anja to create a nursery, and eventually designing gardens. “Plants were characters I could compose with and put on stage.”
What differentiated Oudolf’s spaces from more traditional landscapes is his eye for the “whole picture”—not just single-season blooms, but an every-season experience at once untamed and controlled. The High Line is an exceptional example: a decisively-chosen catalog of grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees shoot up through the old elevated train trestle to create a reclaimed-by-wilderness fantasy in the heart of one of Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhoods. “It may look wild, but it shouldn’t be wild,” he says of his aesthetic. “This is what you’d like to see in nature.”
Piper luxuriates in Oudolf’s plants, and so we do, too. We’re enveloped, via his lingering camera, by Oudolf Garden in Hummelo, the Netherlands, and the Lurie, in Chicago, and Hauser & Wirth Somerset, England. (The power of these moments is unfortunately too often undercut by an invasive score that overwhelms the more dramatic natural sounds, like chirping birds, buzzing insects, and babbling creeks.) The director also uses his footage to create a physical and spatial continuum between Oudolf’s work, cutting, for example, from a plant found at Battery to the same one at the High Line to another in Hummelo. It all serves to expand our view of Oudolf’s influence, create a sensory tether to his plants, and keep it all laser-focused on his Dutch roots.
But while seeing the world only through Oudolf’s eyes is invigorating and uplifting, it comes at a cost. Piper, who has also directed films about Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Sol LeWitt, never adequately places Oudolf in the larger conversation around landscape design. Where does he fit in? How is he different? Who’s copying him or rejecting his influence? We get hints, but it feels like we’re supposed to tap into some prior knowledge. That kind of exclusivity can feel alienating and it allows Oudolf to too often come across as a singular genius, which is at odds with the generous, inclusive man we meet in the film.
With a runtime of only 75 minutes there’s plenty of space to broaden the scope. But Five Seasons is hardly hagiography. Piper seems to genuinely care for Oudolf and love his gardens. If that creates some narrative blindspots, we’re willing to grudgingly give them a pass because what we do get is so engaging and humanistic.