Death becomes the main character in this peculiar cinematic essay that reconstructs the voluntary starvation of a camper.

Death becomes the main character in “The Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy,” a peculiar cinematic essay that reconstructs the voluntary starvation of an anonymous camper. Inspired by a true story (evocative of both “Into the Wild” and “Grizzly Man”), Peter Liechti’s abstract documentary imagines the psychology of someone patient enough to chronicle his own suicide. Interesting more for curiosity value than for its actual execution, this niche-oriented offering treads a fine line between deep and downright corny as it mixes haunting found images with existential self-examination and subjective shots of barren wilderness.

With no firsthand evidence of the actual suicide in question, the pic relies instead on the text of Japanese author Shimada Masahiko’s novella “Until I Am a Mummy,” presented as the diary of the deceased recovered alongside his immaculately preserved corpse (hence the notion of self-mummification). These reflections are delivered as measured narration by fellow filmmaker Peter Mettler on the English-language print reviewed (Alexander Tschernek does the honors in the German-language version).

The character (for he is a fictional construction, after all) never suggests why he has chosen to end his life, focusing instead on recording the slow day-to-day march toward his own extinction. If a man expires in the forest and there is no one to hear his passing, this seems a fair facsimile of his experience, with Liechti intercutting all manner of images to reflect the man’s decaying mental state. Like visuals recycled from “The Ring’s” cursed videotape, these unsettling black-and-white or desaturated clips depict wild animals and ghostly crowds of city folk (as if to suggest the civilization he has left behind), mixed with glimpses from the windows of buses and trains, or the slow paddling of an empty rowboat (Charon come to ferry him to Hades, perhaps).

After so many horror movies in which characters stumble around the woods praying for their lives, it feels odd to witness the reverse scenario, as the narrator curses the heavens for drawing out his demise. However sympathetic viewers may be initially, as the experiment drags from weeks to months, it’s hard not to start rooting for the poor guy to just die already (for a stretch, that same frustration becomes the subject of his journal entries).

The entire process takes 62 days, the tragedy eventually giving way to relief and the morbid appeal undermined by the fact that the narrative itself is merely speculative. With undercurrents both scientific and spiritual, the man’s scrupulous note-taking suggests a twisted form of performance art, the point of which is never quite clear: This melancholy individual rejects humankind and yet yearns to be remembered; he feeds his intellect with books until the end, knowing full well he can’t take such wisdom with him; and he scoffs at an enlightenment that never comes.

There is profound sadness in such contradictions, echoed by Norbert Moslang’s slow, funereal score and the hypnotic succession of visuals, giving auds room to examine their own souls in the process.

The Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy

Switzerland

Production

A Liechti Filmproduction production in co-production with Swill Television SF1. (International sales: Autlook Filmsales, Vienna.) Produced by Peter Liechti. Executive producer, Franziska Reck. Co-producers, Urs Augstburger, Madeleine Hirsiger. Directed, written by Peter Liechti, based on the novella "Until I Am a Mummy," by Shimada Masahiko.

Crew

Camera (color, DV/HD/Super 8-to-35mm), Matthias Kalin, Liechti; editor, Tania Stocklin; music, Norbert Moslang; art director, Franco Carrer; sound (Dolby), Balthasar Jucker; sound designer, Christian Beusch. Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (competing), July 6, 2009. (Also in Rotterdam, Hot Docs, SilverDocs, Jerusalem film festivals.) Running time: 88 MIN. Narrator: Peter Mettler. (English dialogue)
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