Nature documentaries may be plentiful on cable TV, but they rarely connect at the box office—March of the Penguins (2005), the biggest nature film of all time, grossed only $127 million worldwide (compared to $2 billion for the most recent Star Wars sequel). By this modest standard, French filmmakers Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud have been phenomenally successful. Their first two features are firmly lodged among the genre’s top ten: Winged Migration (2001), a stirring account of migratory birds, earned $32 million for Sony Classics, and Oceans (2009), a study of marine life, grossed $82 million for Disney. Seasons, which was picked up for U.S. distribution by Chicago’s own Music Box Films, is the duo’s best effort yet, an unerringly dramatic—and largely wordless—film that spans 20,000 years, from the last Ice Age to the environmental crises of the 21st century. Having scoured the sea and sky, Perrin and Cluzaud now focus on the forests of Europe, finding endless conflict among the species; these little tableaux reveal a constantly shifting balance of power, yet on a geologic scale, the animals’ real contest is with man as he moves into the forest and makes it his own.

The glimpses of animal behavior in Seasons are extraordinarily intimate, and according to the filmmakers’ notes, the trick was assimilating into the environment. “Nature is a set where you can’t take control of the lighting,” explains Stéphane Durand, who cowrote the script with Perrin and Cluzaud. “You have to wait, arm yourself with patience, and blend into the scenery.” In Lapland and Norway the filmmakers captured epic images of bison suffering through a snowstorm; these tough SOBs shake off sheets of caked snow and stare dully into space, owning their lot. Centuries later, when the great thaw has brought on “the golden age of the forest,” birds monitor the action on the ground as a deer gives birth to a calf, and fox cubs cuddle with their mother, so close to the camera they might crawl into the cinematographer’s lap. “Wild animals have developed a reflex to flee human beings that is much more powerful than the reflex to flee their ‘natural’ predators,” writes Durand. “The challenge for the assimilator is to neutralize that atavistic fear as quickly as possible by adopting the animal immediately after birth.”

That sort of time investment pays off in unscripted, unguarded action that lays bare the animals’ needs and instincts and produces one microdrama after another. In a clearing, water buffalo are tortured by flies until they erupt into action, rumbling off in search of more congenial territory. A lynx creeps up on a rock overhang, spying on the deer just below, and pounces, giving chase until the deer leaves it behind. Stags clash with each other, locking horns and whirling around violently. Often Perrin and Cluzaud will add another layer of tension to these dramas by cutting in the reactions of birds and small animals who watch from a safe remove. A squirrel frets in a treetop as wolves chase a boar through the forest below; a fox stares, transfixed, as two bears in the distance try to tear each other apart, then comes to its senses and gets gone. In one of the most exciting contests, another pack of wolves chase a herd of horses through the woods and encircle one of them, but the horse drives them off, spinning and kicking; overhead, a crow who’s been following the chase settles on a branch to watch the power struggle play out.

These little dramas are so arresting that one hardly notices the larger story arc taking shape as man begins to encroach on the forest. From the animals’ perspective, he’s a mysterious figure, glimpsed at a distance through the foliage. Early in the film, amid a riot of birdsong, a man appears with a set of panpipes, joining in the music. Humans are almost a ghostly presence—as squirrels gambol up and down the side of a tree, an arrow slices through the air and lands in the mossy base of the trunk. About an hour into the film, a Rubicon is crossed when a lone wolf ventures into a human encampment and accepts a scrap of food from a girl. Before long woodsmen are clearing trees; the directors position a camera at the top of one to record its journey to the ground. “The golden age of the forest is over,” announces Perrin (a veteran actor) in voice-over narration. The last of the movie’s numerous chase scenes involves not animals preying on each other but a stag being pursued by a pack of beagles and huntsmen on horseback.

Seasons takes us so deep inside the lives of woodland animals that words are superfluous; in contrast to most nature documentaries, the new movie is remarkably free of narration for much of its running time. Perrin’s commentary serves mainly to explain the environmental shifts taking place across hundreds or thousands of years, not to anthropomorphize the animals for us as they go about their business. Only when mankind has barged into the story do the filmmakers begin to verbalize the movie’s theme of environmental collapse. The 20th century is a disaster for the forest animals: in one haunting image birds land on a coil of razor wire amid the trench warfare of World War I, and peace brings only men in white hazmat suits, spraying pesticide as they march down rows of crops. In the obligatory hopeful conclusion, Perrin declares that “nature has not given up” and proposes “a new alliance” between man and beast to reclaim the earth. That may seem like an unequal partnership, but to judge from the movie, the beasts fight harder to survive than we do.  v