Botanists, horticulturists, and groundskeepers won’t be disappointed by Rosie Stapel’s Portrait of a Garden, a comprehensive visual inventory of a fabulously maintained multi-acre “kitchen garden” on a historic Dutch estate. Others, meanwhile, may walk away feeling as indifferent to the craft of landscaping as they were when they came in—a crippling Achilles’ heel in a film whose chief concern is the transmission of out-of-fashion knowledge to new generations. Peppered with a near-constant barrage of footnotes on the lower third of the frame identifying whatever varietal of crop viewers happen to be observing at a given moment, the film is insistent in its efforts to stoke interest in gardening and pruning, yet it stops short of bridging the gap for those less inherently spellbound by soil, roots, and branches.
The garden’s fedora-wearing owner, Daan van der Have, and his 85-year-old master gardener, Jan Freriks, would ostensibly represent an entry point for such viewers, yet Stapel elects to keep them at arm’s length, eschewing talking heads in favor of fixating on the surface beauty of the grounds. As a purely formal gambit, the decision often pays dividends: Pleasingly composed in an expansive 2:35:1 frame with little camera movement, the film leaves ample room to appreciate the systematic gridded arrangement of the garden, the curves of the trellises, and the layers of topsoil, stems, and buds. Whenever van der Have and Freriks are going about their duties in the background of a shot, muttering to each other about the year’s harvest, there’s at least a vanishing point or a symmetrical display to admire.
That said, Portrait of a Garden’s distance from its human subjects forestalls the film’s momentum and strips it of a heart. Although never getting near enough to see van der Have and Freriks’s faces for any length of time, Stapel allows the occasional bit of conversation to be overheard. The pair mostly chat about the vagaries of the weather and trimming practices, but sometimes they go deeper, casually musing on a bygone era when gardening held an elevated cultural status, or wondering what will come of their expertise after they pass. Other figures around the estate, though, aren’t granted even this degree of cursory attention, and the disregard for characterization becomes especially perplexing in a seemingly climactic episode when a vegetarian feast using a summer’s worth of fresh crops is prepared, mostly off screen, by a chef who gets only a few passing words of dialogue. What’s the point of gardening, after all, if not as a prelude to nourishment?
In its plentiful and tiresome montages of budding foliage set to stock music ranging from the cheerlessly motivational to the generically lulling, Portrait of a Garden posits that we might also benefit from treating gardening simply as a medium for aesthetic reverence. Or, on the other hand, that we recognize it as an ancient labor tradition that transcends the demands of sale or consumption (one scene intercuts footage from the estate with ancient Flemish paintings and early Dutch photographs, underscoring the depth of the lineage). In any case, Stapel’s film possesses only the utility of a museum-exhibition placard—something to be regarded in passing, and an educational primer rather than an experience in itself.