Pretentious? Moi? I couldn’t unthink that old gag during this lovely, heartfelt but shamelessly highfalutin doc about Marxist art critic, essayist, novelist and intellectual John Berger.
In the year before his 2016 death, Berger allowed four film crews to follow him around his tiny French village, Quincy, in the Haute Savoie foothills, where he has lived for 40 years, “the better to understand the ways of the peasant”.
The project’s progenitor is clearly Tilda Swinton, who feels a kinship with Berger because they share the same birthday, November 5, though 34 years apart. She cites Berger as a friend and mentor, a huge influence on her own work and artistic outlook. “It’s a practical fantasy of twinship,” muses Tilda in voice-over, adding that she’s doing this for “a blast of his company and a glimpse of his gimlet eye, for a check-in, a check-up, a catch-up, a chin-wag.”
In the first film, amid the winter snows, Tilda and Berger chat while she peels apples and makes a pie (the recipe, as intoned by Tilda, involves “an élan of lemon juice”). The pair reminisce about their childhoods, which isn’t essentially very interesting, except they’re both charismatic and always on the verge of profundity.
The next section is Spring, which turns attention to the livestock of the village, with much focus on pigs and cows, drifting into philosophy about cycles of life and whether pigs comprehend death. Berger has written several books on animals, and we see him featured in flashback as a younger man, both as fiery art critic on Monitor for the BBC, talking Picasso and Leger, while also in Mike Dibbs’ films of the 1980s, where Berger sits in a hayloft, chuntering about cattle.
The summer brings a new section, A Song for Politics, in which Berger joins a panel chaired by the Godard expert and scholar Colin McCabe, during which several intellectuals riff on vague themes of capitalism and corporate structure. “The right has no contemporary story,” posits Christophe Roth, “which is why they are always dramatising the past.”
Last comes Harvest, and Tilda visits Berger in Paris, taking her children with her, Xavier and Honor, two very elegant teens with long necks, fluttering lashes and that brisk, benevolent poshness so striking in their mother. Berger takes Honor for a motorbike ride, before which he sort of extends his famous Ways of Seeing as an instructional for driving: “You just point your eyes and the bike sort of goes where you want it,” he says. For the first time, Tilda doesn’t look convinced by his theories.
I like Berger a lot as a writer and thinker, and as you know, I’m very fond of Tilda, so I liked this strange, unique home movie for all the reasons I suspect some people might not like it. The whole “noble peasant” thing is a bit condescending, I feel, although there’s a sense of Berger’s politics in the simplicity of village life. I shouldn’t think you’d stumble into the film by mistake, but there’s space in here amid the hay and the cowbells, for reflection, reverie and revolution.