A feature documentary about a day in the life of the bug universe, "Microcosmos" is a surprisingly entertaining, visually stunning treat. This offbeat entry, directed by French biologists Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou , could develop into a cult hit internationally if savvy distributors figure out how to market a film with no dialogue, no plot and a cast list that's straight out of an entomology textbook.

A feature documentary about a day in the life of the bug universe, “Microcosmos” is a surprisingly entertaining, visually stunning treat. This offbeat entry, directed by French biologists Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou , could develop into a cult hit internationally if savvy distributors figure out how to market a film with no dialogue, no plot and a cast list that’s straight out of an entomology textbook.

More than 25 years ago, an insect world docu, “The Hellstrom Chronicle,” broke out into hit status, and if this new item is positioned as one step beyond “Babe,” it could generate major interest with both hip filmgoers and family auds.

Unlike “Babe,” these critters don’t talk, but the adventurous filmmakers, making use of highly advanced camera equipment, still manage to inject all kinds of personality into various creepy-crawly creatures. There is no small amount of sly humor in their portrait of the work and play habits of numerous insect species, from the ladybird to the butterfly. “Microcosmos” chronicles one full day in a meadow in the French countryside. The strange journey kicks off with a dizzying aerial shot that zooms in from up in the clouds down to ground level. Throughout, the directors use extraordinary closeup shots that make the insects look like huge, bizarre-looking extraterrestrials, and single drops of water appear to be gigantic, gooey objects from outer space.

One of the first scenes features a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Then a bee buzzes through the air, looking and sounding uncannily like a World War II fighter plane. There also are some steamy moments, most notably a strangely beautiful scene showcasing two snails doing the wild thing in their inimitable style.

The most violent sequence comes courtesy of a nasty-looking spider that captures a couple of grasshoppers. The myth of Sisyphus is echoed in an extraordinary look at a beetle’s fruitless efforts to roll a ball of dung up a hill.

The only thing resembling a plot development is the violent thunderstorm toward the end of the day. The insect drama winds down with a gorgeous shot of the sunset and a quick glimpse of some of the bugs’ nocturnal routines.

Nuridsany and Perennou have achieved quite a feat here: These unusual filmmakers have made their docu into something much more interesting than a standard nature piece by turning the bugs into larger-than-life characters whose quirks, pastimes and relationships are never less than riveting.

The helmers, who have been studying and documenting the insect world for 25 years, spent two years designing special camera and lighting equipment, and the ambitious, painstaking shoot took place over three years. Their almost fanatical attention to detail is one of the elements that makes “Microcosmos” such a pleasure to watch.

The camerawork of Nuridsany, Perennou, Hughes Ryffel and Thierry Machado creates a remarkably rich, ultra-colorful tableau, and the plethora of tight closeups of the bugs in action sets this effort well apart from garden-variety docus.

Bruno Coulais’ score plays a major role, given the absence of dialogue, and he has crafted a wildly eclectic soundtrack that features everything from opera tracks to new-age vocal numbers. His music often helps the directors underline the comic or dramatic subtexts in the scenes.

With a running time just under standard feature length, there isn’t a dull moment here, and this all-natural ensemble piece delivers more dramatic punch than many a human pic.

Microcosmos

French-Swiss-Italian

Production

A Galatee Films/France 2 Cinema/BAC Films/Delta Images/Les Prods. JMH/Television Suisse Romande/Urania Films production, with the participation of Canal Plus. (International sales: President Films, Paris.) Produced by Jacques Perrin, Christophe Barratier, Yvette Mallet. Executive producers, Michel Faure, Philippe Gautier, Andre Lazare, Patrick Lancelot. Directed by Claude Nuridsany, Marie Perennou.

Crew

Camera (color), Nuridsany, Perennou, Hughes Ryffel, Thierry Machado; editors, Marie-Josephe Yoyotte, Florence Ricard; music, Bruno Coulais; sound, Philippe Barbeau, Bernard Leroux. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (noncompeting), May 12, 1996. Running time: 77 min.
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