1996, NR, 80 min. Directed by Claude Nuridsany, Marie Perennou. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Nov. 29, 1996

One low-grade philosophical insight most of us have had is the similarity between our own social structures and those of lower animals. The proof is in our language: alpha male, drone, bitch in heat, queen bee. It's bugs in particular that are anthropomorphized in Microcosmos, but documentarians Nuridsany and Perennou have a deeper agenda that finally points to one clear distinction between us and the exoskeletal set -- our ability to appreciate beauty. This lyrical, often intoxicatingly gorgeous panorama of insect life in extreme close-up is certainly no National Geographic special. Although 15 years of research and three years of shooting supposedly went into it, you won't come away from Microcosmos knowing much more about bugs than you do right now. The sparse narrative -- just a few quasi-poetic words spoken at the beginning and end -- tells us next to nothing about what kinds of critters we're seeing or what they're up to. Are those ants fighting? Having sex? Exchanging some masonic greeting? But chances are you won't fret too much over these questions, because the images, inscrutable though they sometimes are, are so exquisitely lovely and exotic. Butterflies emerging from rice paper cocoons. Neon-hued caterpillars extending and retracting magenta curlicue antennae. Spiders building underwater homes out of air bubbles. Ants being massacred by a Rodan-like pheasant. It all takes place during a figurative 24-hour period in a small, grassy meadow in the Aveyron region of France. Perhaps the most striking difference between Microcosmos and traditional nature documentaries is the technical ingenuity used to create images we haven't seen before. Robotic cameras give us the view from inside anthills and wasp nests. Ultra-powerful microphones let us hear sounds as faint as the beating of dragonfly wings. (The filmmakers do own up to dubbing-in certain other sounds, presumably including the slurping noises of ants quenching their thirst on dewdrops.) Time lapse and slow-motion photography, along with various distortion and refraction filters are also employed for evocative effects that mostly justify the artistic license. Original music by Bruno Coulais enhances the hypnotic ambiance. And ambiance is all-important here; like the films of Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi), Microcosmos is more about reverie than revelation. Still, don't be surprised if you come away from it with that feeling, like the aftermath of a deep, strange dream, that your consciousness has been enlarged in a subtle but very real way.

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Microcosmos, Claude Nuridsany, Marie Perennou, Kristin Scott Thomas

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