“I put plants on stage and let them perform.” Piet Oudolf delivers pithy statements like this one throughout Thomas Piper’s documentary Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf. He delivers them in the unhurried cadence of SNL’s Jack Handey but without the satirical bent. As the camera follows the 73-year-old Dutchman to the various gardens he’s designed, a portrait of Oudolf emerges as a plant whisperer. By pinching a bud, he predicts that a magnolia tree will flower in 14 days. Standing in front of a field where asters grow into artemesia, he states his design philosophy as “a landscape you would dream of but would never find in the wild.”
Oudolf believes plants are beautiful both when they’re flowering and when they’re not. Cut into seasonal segments that begin and end in autumn, the film is a series of floral and grassy still-life paintings brought to life by Oudolf’s appraising eyes and hands. He’s rarely seen sitting down. Piper is content to omit a standard biographical summary, though he does include photographs of the gardener when he was young and blond (and as beautiful as David Bowie). The most revelatory moment comes when this internationally acclaimed designer admits that his wife Anja supported the family for years while he figured out what to do with his life but says, “that was solved when I met plants.”
Opens Friday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley.