The Burning Season

The Burning Season (2023)

The Burning Season screens at the Glasgow Film Festival 2024

Opening in medias res to the sound of a woman gasping for breath, the prologue to Sean Garrity’s The Burning Season is what might be called a primal scene. “You can’t tell anyone about this, ok? Ever. Promise me.” says a panting, upset girl (Natalie Jane) to a similarly aged boy (Christian Meer). ῾”I promise,” says the boy, intensely, and the two teens stand close outside in the dark, facing each other, as, in the background, a cabin is consumed by flames. Though divorced of its proper context (that will not come till the very end, with lots of hints along the way), this is clearly the scene of the crime, the scene of trauma, the formative moment that will toxify both these adolescents’ lives long into adulthood. For with that promise which they make, that mutual contract to keep what has occurred between them their ‘secret’, they are bound to each other forever by a kind of omertà that can only lead to more destructive secrets and lies.   

The proof of this comes in the film’s first post-titles sequence, set at the Luna Lake Resort some three decades after the prologue. JB (Jonas Chernick, who also co-wrote with Diana Frances) and Poppy (Tanisha Thammavongsa) run the resort together, have a newborn daughter, and are about to get married at a reception under a outdoor marquee. They are a ‘happy couple’ – and yet the mere sight of old friend Alena (Sara Canning) arriving with her husband Tom (Joe Pingue) sends JB on a drug-fuelled spiral to derail hιs own wedding and to reveal an affair that has secretly been going on for some years. 

That section is formally titled ‘Chapter 7’, not only because we are witnessing two couples drained of their last resources and declared over, but also because The Burning Season is, like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (1999), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002), François Ozon’s 5×2 (2004) and Jang Hang-jun’s Open the Door (2022), a film whose narrative is told in reverse chronological order, in seven parts (plus an eventually extended prologue). For JB and Alena’s addictive, episodic affair, conducted furtively over the last six years at the end of the Resort’s summer season, allows viewers to follow a breadcrumb trail of consequences all the way back to their painful cause.

Like Tony Maylam’s The Burning (1981) – with its significantly similar title – and the entire Friday the 13th franchise, The Burning Season is mostly set in lakeside cabins haunted by a past tragedy which has left its trace – like ripples on water. Yet the two people broken by their shared history, and the other two unwittingly exposed to their fire, will not pick up power tools (except for the odd maintenance work on the Resort) nor go on crazed killing sprees. Rather they put on merely metaphorical masks of secrecy and duplicity, as they keep fanning the flames of their own inner pain, and leave their youthful, arrested love forever unresolved and shrouded in a taboo of grief and guilt. Even if this is not a slasher, young co-eds have still been destroyed in their prime.

The Burning Season is a dysfunctional love story, far more emotionally mature than its two principal characters who, incapable of moving on, keep being drawn back to each either – and to the ground zero of their lasting damage. “We’re very good at keeping pacts, right?”, Alena will say – yet those teenagers’ transgression from 30 years earlier begets ever more transgressions, as both she and JB prove serially incapable of sticking to their own self-imposed, ever-changing rules, let alone staying true to others, leading inevitably from that primal conflagration to the incineration of all their future relationships. 

All this is acted with extraordinary nuance by the players, and intricately reverse-engineered to maximise the internal ironies of a drama foreshadowed by its own backwards trajectory. As the retroactive story gets ever closer to its initial flashpoint, and tries, ultimately, to tie up all its narrative loose ends, there is a certain awkwardness to the way it simultaneously overexplains itself and still fails to find easy closure. Perhaps that reveals something essential about the nature of trauma – a circle that can never be fully or satisfyingly squared. For long after the last ashes have been scattered, the void of this pair’s neediness keeps on smouldering, and no amount of time, chronological or otherwise, can ever fully cauterise their wounds. At least, in the end, they have broken their mutual code of silence and are at last talking – but by then, everyone has been burned.

strap: Sean Garrity’s dysfunctional love story reverses its own chronology to show adult trauma smouldering in the embers of youthful romance

© Anton Bitel