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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 11/07/1996,

Beetle mania

Microcosmos reveals a small but fabulous world

by Chris Wright

MICROCOSMOS. Written and directed by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou. A Miramax release. At the Kendall Square.

Microcosmos opens with a God's-eye view of majestic, golden-tinted clouds pummeling upward through the stratosphere. The camera, however, soon begins to descend, below the clouds, above the treetops and down, immersing us finally deep in meadow grass. A bulbous green caterpillar munches on a leaf, seems to notice us for a moment, then continues. A rhinoceros-like beetle lumbers by. "Look at your feet," sings an eerie boy soprano on the soundtrack. We so often look up and out in search of the sublime; French biologists Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou, the makers of Microcosmos, offer us an alternative.

Click for an interview with the writers/directors.


It took Nuridsany and Perennou 20 years to research and shoot what amounts to an hour and a half of footage. That's 90 minutes of nothing but insects doing insect things. Sound boring? It's not. Microcosmos has comedy, drama, action-adventure, a cast of thousands -- plus a little sex and violence. And you can take the kids.

Boring? Never mind Star Wars and The X Files. In case you weren't aware, we are sharing the planet with alien beings. Although the characters in Microcosmos are phantasmagorical, often frightening, Nuridsany and Perennou don't focus on the nasty, brute, and short; instead they make a kind of delicate poetry of the scuttlings and slitherings of their creepy crawlies.

The action takes place in a field in France, over the course of 24 hours. It is no accident that the film observes Aristotle's unities of time and place. Microcosmos means to present itself as a dramatic work, a series of vignettes within a larger story. And it is successful. We actually care about the insects; somehow we share their concerns as they go about their daily lives. A day down here, though, is often a lifetime, a field an entire world. Scale, temporality, everything is off -- which makes it all the more surprising to see these creatures conducting their business with an almost humdrum humanity. To see them so close.

Nuridsany and Perennou designed their own equipment to gain privileged access to their subjects. Sometimes the proximity is alarming, sometimes touching, often amusing. We see the backside of a bee (by means of a miniature helicopter) as it buzzes through humungous flowers. We watch a monstrous pheasant from the viewpoint of the ant colony it decimates with a building-sized beak. And, in one of the tenderest love scenes I have ever seen, we observe two back-lit snails touch tentative horns, then smear and ripple over one another to an operatic aria.

There is no didactic commentary explaining what the bugs are up to. The only narration in Microcosmos comes at the beginning and the end -- Wild Kingdom the film is not. We are simply supposed to delight in the spectacle of the insects' odd little world, occasionally prodded into responses by music, but more often by the sounds of the insects themselves. The cinematography is exquisite, sensitive to lighting, color, and texture. Microcosmos certainly aims toward the aesthetic rather than the educational.

There is, however, a touch of allegory about the film. A trail of caterpillars -- nose to end, like bumper-to-bumper traffic -- makes its way along the dusty ground. Other caterpillars twitch impatiently, attempting to nose their way into the procession, which concludes with everybody intertwined in a weird, rhythmically writhing heap. You don't have to stretch the imagination too far to make the connection between this scenario and the ordeal of a morning's commute, or the drudgery at the end of it.

More overtly symbolic is a scene wherein a beetle rolls its ball of dung, Sisyphus-like, along what seems a never-ending series of hills and bumps. Looking like a beefy little laborer, the beetle meets and overcomes obstacles with poignant determination, displaying impressive problem-solving skills for a creature with a beetle-sized brain.

Indeed, for all the insects' stark differences from us, they show a peculiar anthropomorphism. A pair of stag beetles engage in battle while heraldic music emphasizes their knightly stature. A colony of ants fusses over a herd of aphids, gently stroking them to encourage production of sap. Nuridsany and Perennou even capture a wide array of body language -- from the quizzical glance of a praying mantis to the horny wriggle of a bee's butt before it mounts what is actually a flower disguised as a she-bee.

Such trickery and manipulation is common down here, particularly between those inconstant wildflowers and the honey-hungry bee. Another bee seems almost to violate a flower as it thrusts its head deep into the petals. The flower, meanwhile, extends a surreptitious stamen to dust the bee's backside with pollen. The bee's obtuseness and the deliberate, ginger strokes of the flower make for a pantomime atmosphere; you find yourself tempted to yell, "Behind you!"

If Microcosmos is often a profound film, even inspiring (dread words for the moviegoer) philosophical reflection, it is, above all, great fun. Insects are natural clowns: they stumble, they fall about a lot. A raindrop to a mosquito has the effect of a thousand custard pies. Insects teeter, even more than ourselves, along the tightrope of chance and catastrophe. But as with all good comedies, the clowns bounce back. Like the famous spider that is said to have inspired Robert Bruce to "try, try again," these insects show a resilience we might learn from.

William Blake, in his "Auguries of Innocence," wrote:

To see a World in a grain of sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour.

Microcosmos helps us to realize these paradoxes. Not only do we look into another realm when we observe the world of the insect, we become a little more sensitive to our own. "Open your eyes," sings the eerie boy again. Microcosmos invites us to take our heads out of the clouds for a moment, to see the universe within a universe right under our feet.

Bugging out

Marie Perennou calls Microcosmos "true tales," and talks of "rehabilitating the population of the grass." Her husband, Claude Nuridsany, asserts that "every bug has its own destiny." Not the kinds of sentiments you'd expect to hear from biologists. Nuridsany and Perennou, though, aren't your everyday eggheads. Twenty years ago, the couple found themselves getting fed up with the French Académie and the scientific search for truth. "When you are a researcher, you publish for other researchers," Perennou points out. "We wanted to break away from the scientific world and share our findings with others."

The two believe that there is more to understanding than the mere discovery of facts, that our emotions must be engaged also. So they turned to filmmaking, and a more aesthetically inclined representation of the world they study. Nuridsany explains, "We try to engage the imagination of the spectator. We tell the story of this world as if it were an opera, not simple biology. We are right in the middle of art and science; we put these two fields together -- people have a tendency to separate them."

Although Perennou admits that an overly imaginative treatment of the insect world could have led to them falling into the trap of humanizing their subjects, she maintains that there are unavoidable comparisons between their world and ours: "It's a strange world, but when you go along with the movie, you see that there is something from time to time that looks like our life." Watching these creatures go about the daily search for such necessities as food, shelter, and sexual partners, you'd have to agree with her.

Their experiences with the insects in Microcosmos led Nuridsany and Perennou to view them as individuals. Nuridsany says, "We show that this is a special grasshopper. They are not interchangeable. We used a lot of insects of the same species, like doubles in the movies. We noticed that there were some who were natural performers. For instance, with the ladybird taking off from the grass -- there was one ladybird who was a star, she always took off with a loop." Perennou, laughing, notes that "there were also some actors who were very -- sensitive."

Bugs, according to Nuridsany and Perennou, have for too long gotten a raw deal. "Give them their due," says Perennou. "Humankind is more cruel than insects." Nuridsany adds, "Insects are so often portrayed as little robots who are always killing each other, like science-fiction movies. To us they are like mythological creatures, creatures of great beauty. For instance, the mosquito rising like Venus out of the water."

When asked whether he would swat a mosquito that landed on his arm, perhaps the self-same "actor" that emerged so elegantly from the water, Nuridsany laughs and says, "Yes. We are human beings, after all."

-- CW