Gardeners have an expansive view of time. They must consider individual moments — when to prune a branch, say, or tie up a vine — as well as yearly cycles, how each season requires different methods of working with roots, the soil, and the sun. In Rosie Stapel’s sublime documentary Portrait of a Garden, estate-owner Daan Van der Have and 85-year-old “prune master” Jan Freriks also think about their garden in terms of decades. For more than twenty years they have worked to revitalize the oldest “kitchen garden” in the Netherlands. This film captures their daily work in the garden, located on Van der Have’s land, and the warm, banal conversations they share to help time pass. Meditative in its slowness and exquisite beauty, Portrait of a Garden is more than a fine documentary — it’s a balm for the soul.
Freriks, we learn, has dedicated his life to gardening and is eager to pass his knowledge on to others. “Write it down,” he demands of his younger companion after showing him how to prune a pear tree. There’s a reason for Freriks’s urgent worry. Those pear trees, we’re told, will take another fifteen years — nearly a generation — to form the shapes he envisions, meaning he might not see his work come to literal fruition. Appreciative of his old friend’s concern, Van der Have reassures him that he’s taking note of everything.
We’re treated to just one year in the garden, a mere blip in its long existence. But that’s long enough to watch it awaken in the spring, produce its bounty of fruit and vegetables and then return to dormancy. Its transformation is truly a wonder to behold. A gray chill hangs over the garden in January. By April, its triangular and starburst-shaped plots show their first signs of growth — a deeply moving moment.
Once those plots reach full bloom, Portrait of a Garden becomes several portraits — a series of still lifes, really — as Stapel lingers on distinct flowers and pieces of fruit. There’s no narrative to speak of save the passing of time, but each shot brims with almost metaphysical significance. As the camera zooms in on a decaying pear teeming with buggy life, it’s hard not to think about the interconnectedness of all living things.
The film is also a portrait of a friendship. Freriks and Van der Have are a delight as they garden side by side, discussing the minutiae of their lives. The latter clearly admires Freriks even when gently annoyed by the older man’s exacting corrections of his work. And Freriks, slightly bewildered by the camera, appears most comfortable when it’s just the two of them (a handful of young gardeners can often be seen working in the background).
In a year that’s brought more heartbreaking news than any in recent memory, opportunities for contemplative escape are more welcome than ever. Portrait of a Garden offers comforting, restorative quiet.
Portrait of a Garden
Directed by Rosie Stapel
Opens October 28, Film Forum