'Microcosmos' looks into fantastic world at our feet Review: Film examines life at ground level of a French meadow, where the insects rule.

November 27, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

You'll never squish a gnat with quite the same obliviousness again. After all, he might be somebody's lover.

That is the immediate response to "Microcosmos," a stunning documentary that examines life at the ground level in a patch of banally pretty but otherwise nondescript French meadow. At the level of the stalks, the bugs thunder about like saurian lizards, clanking, many-jointed monstrosities out of a nightmare. Snails undulate with the sexuality of mucus-soaked porn stars. Big critters eat little critters and bigger critters still eat them. Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore. We don't even seem to be in France!

Someone once wrote, "In nature, that which is not forbidden becomes mandatory," and that seems to be the guiding principle down here in the micro-jungle. The forms of the creatures are a constant astonishment: such appendages, such pretty jaws, such big eyes, such grotesque color schemes. The movie is one visual trump after another.

But it's also an astonishment of behavior. It's odd how certain animal patterns re-create themselves, whether the creatures in question crawl on a thousand legs or walk on two. The snails, for example, are entwined in a glisteny love dance that's a little embarrassing in the moist directness of its passion. You feel as if you're peeping in a rear window somewhere. "Mommy, what are those snails doing?" "Ask your father, dear. In 10 years."

It is, clearly, the work of obsessed people: Fifteen years of research, two years of designing the equipment, three years of shooting, six months of editing. The geniuses behind it are biologists Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou, who have made careers out of revealing the truth of microworlds and have designed complex optical equipment to record the goings on.

Do they manipulate the behavior to achieve human metaphor?

Of course, and quite amusingly: In one scene, they create the imagery of Camus' "Myth of the Sisyphus," with a heroic Sacred Beetle rolling a huge dung ball up a hill. Talk about a hero! This guy doesn't know the meaning of the word quit. As the man says, it ain't the size of the beetle in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the beetle.

The narrative structure -- pure gimmick! -- is one timeless day, dawn till dusk, in a very small place. It's corny but it works, particularly when presented without narration, syncopated to music and edited to the teeth. This is definitely the "Iliad," the "Odyssey," "The Brothers K" and the "War and Peace" of bugland.

'Microcosmos'

Documentary

Directed by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou

Released by Miramax

Rated G

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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