film review actually begins with a critique of the documentary Microcosmos.
It was published in the January 1997 "bugs" issue of Satya.
and Colleen McGuire
Microcosmos is an eloquent documentary
devoted to a single task: observing insects. Using unique, specially designed
cameras, the film was shot at bug-eye level by French biologists Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou.
The two spent over three years studying the denizens of a vast, fascinating
universe ignored by most humans. Beginning with a sweeping pan of an immense
sky, the camera slowly inches closer and closer to earth–through
trees and bushes, past flowers and shrubs, finally focusing on blades of
grass. There we encounter a cast of thousands worthy of a Cecil B. deMille production. In this common meadow in France on a single summer day from
dawn to dusk, the documentary randomly tracks a day in the life of bugs.
Almost devoid of human
commentary, the film bares silent witness to the comings and goings of a
micro-metropolis of tiny creatures who cohabit
this planet with us. A highly creative musical score–a device
probably necessary to sustain general audience appeal–encourages
anthropomorphic interpretations. Accompanied by a swelling operatic
crescendo, we are enthralled by the prolonged climax of two snails kissing
like some Gone With the Wind poster. Staccato drumbeats
"narrate" the bustling of worker ants as if in a factory
Dramatic violins play
as an overwhelmed little beetle pushes and prods Sisyphus-style a pellet of
sheep dung with Herculean effort. Noisy horns underscore two stag beetles
in combat, resembling a senseless macho confrontation between teenage boys.
The exquisite cinematography likewise obviates the intrusion of spoken
word. A close-up of one insect’s coat of armor brings to mind an
exotic Mardi Gras costume. Deep in the folds of a luscious flower, we watch
a bee drunkenly suck nectar. The time lapse birth of a water bug evolving
from larva to the splendor of evanescent wings evokes the sacredness of
While not a single
human enters the filmic frame, at one point an enormous shadow hovers over
a throng of ants. It is an average crow, yet from the camera/ants’
perspective it appears as a beast of Himalayan proportions. While the bird
pecks and eats its scurrying brunch, the ants continue apace making no
effort to flee or organize a defensive strategy. One is tempted to dismiss
them as mindless automatons. Yet, an incredible sense of cooperation is
evident when we observe residents inside an ant hole neatly stacking their
hoard with housekeeper meticulousness. The two scenes pose a paradox:
seemingly purposeless meandering juxtaposed to actions of calculated
precision. The viewer is left pondering the interplay between instinct and
While the music and
cinematography of Microcosmos beckons its
audience to humanize the insects’ behavior, one is also struck by how
much we’re like them. Segue to Angels and Insects.
Director Philip Haas has created a mini-Microcosmos in his portrayal of a 19th
century English household. Entomologist William Adamson (Mark Rylance) has just returned from ten years of study in
the Amazon jungle. He now seeks patronage from a wealthy vicar, Sir Harald Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp), an amateur naturalist,
who hires him to organize his insect collection and tutor his younger
children. He soon falls in love with Eugenia (Patsy Kensit),
the lord’s stunning, blond, neurasthenic older daughter. He admires
her beauty as lovingly as the ethereal butterflies he carefully impales for
her father. Despite his "vulgar blood" and working class origins,
they marry, and Adamson settles deeper into the baronial Alabaster manor
and the dark secrets that lay within.
A brief opening scene
presents Adamson in the Amazon surrounded by indigenous people engaged in a
phantasmagoric dance. The contrast between
Adamson’s (Adam’s son?) wanderings in the "primitive"
jungle could not be more sharply drawn than by his catapult via the
Alabasters (the ultimate WASP surname) into upper class British society.
Stiff dinner conversation is enlivened by new Darwinian theories of nature,
while Victorian notions on race, class, gender and, sexual repression hover as subtext.
pacing is as slow as watching a glassed-in ant farm. Numerous close-ups of
ant colonies and other insects serve as metaphors for human behavior. The
household is like a hive, with worker drones scurrying about the halls in
the service of the vicar’s family, especially his portly queen bee of
a wife. A funeral procession resembles a column of ants. Colorful ball
gowns mirror butterfly wings. When shocking secrets unfold, the entire
mansion buzzes with the servants’ hushed whispers, akin to a low
Some critics scoffed
at the film’s "politically correct" observations on culture
and nature. The Alabasters represent the pinnacle of "civilized
man": decorous, obsessed with lineage, comfortable with all manner of supremacism. Nature, newly colonized peoples, and weak,
submissive women bluntly stand for the subdued Other. The dualistic themes
may be obvious, but an intelligent examination of the intersection of
imperialism, class, gender and species is still a rare treat, given most
popular culture fare.
Class issues abound in
the form of obscene wealth, domestics avoiding eye contact with masters,
and the vicar’s snooty son’s disdain for Adamson, whose father
was a butcher. As a flawless period piece, the film vividly depicts the
stark sexism of Victorian England where upper class women are corseted
silent, reduced to vessels for birthing heirs. Rape plays a primary role
throughout this film. Feminist relief comes in the form of Matty, the Alabasters’ poor relation and quasi
governess, crisply portrayed by Kristin Scott Thomas (who, coincidentally,
supplied the lone human voice in Microcosmos).
Matty masterminds a collaboration with Adamson to
write a popular book based on their ant colony studies. Her erudite,
self-assured presence is a respite from the other subservient, marginalized
The presentation of
gender and class is strong, but Angels and Insects doesn’t
quite accomplish a deeper understanding of speciesism.
Corollaries between "man" and insects (nature) are provocative,
but conveyed with a distance, as if the director were observing the
Alabaster household through an entomologist’s magnifying glass. The
audience is left wanting more insights on the connections between culture
and nature, not just a mise-en-scene.
For mere observation of species behavior, Microcosmos–without
words, without staged drama–more indelibly captures the wondrous
peculiarity and mystery of nature’s beings in all their complexity.