Insects and violence sensation at film festival

Charles Arthur reports on the latest buzz in the movie world
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The Independent Online
Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. And next week you will be able to watch the latter two groups making their wide- screen debut, in a film that goes where no film has gone before: into the insects' boudoir.

Indeed, Microcosmos - which will be shown next Sunday as part of the London Film Festival - is expected to wow them in the United States, where the distributor, Miramax, launches it this month. From the publicity, you wouldn't think it had no actors and no script; in fact, the language used to describe it would not look out of place on Page 3 of your local tabloid.

For example: "The phrase `Double Helix' gets a new twist as these two snails writhe in a sensuous, tickle-my-tentacles embrace. It's the blind leading the blind here in a super slimy tango a deux. Looks like they answered a personal ad for a `Body Rub' - but no need for hot garlic butter to fan the flames of passion with these escargots."

Is this the sort of thing we should expect from two former university lecturers? Actually, yes; the film is exactly what the directors, Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou - previously lecturers in biology at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris - wanted to do, though perhaps they would have described it differently. They have been working together making scientific films and observations in the field of ecology and reproductive biology since 1969, when they gave up academia for TV, books and this, their first full-length film.

Five years ago they decided to make a film about the tinier inhabitants of a French meadow over the course of a single summer's day. Twenty-four hours might not sound long - but it is for an insect that measures its lifespan in weeks. After two years' camera, light and sound design, and another three years' filming, they had what they wanted.

Nuridsany describes it as "the Earth rediscovered on a centimetre scale. Its inhabitants are fantastic creatures, insects and other creatures of the grass and of the water".

Perennou adds: "The countryside becomes an impenetrable forest of tufts of grass and dewdrops as large as balloons. Bathed in strange light, surrounded by unknown sounds, you discover a parallel world governed by different physical laws. Insects can walk on water or stroll upside down."

Certainly there are all sorts of delightful entanglements on offer. Besides copulating snails there is also a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly, bees gathering pollen, spiders capturing their prey, dragonflies in flight, and more caterpillars forming a miniature conga line as they search for a place to dig themselves in and form chrysalides.

Beautiful images, certainly, but not all as spontaneous as they might seem, according to Nuridsany. Many insects turned up, but few were chosen for the final scenes; those of a ladybird taking off, for example, whittled a prospective cast of 20 down to three that would fly willingly. "Some shots took 40 takes, or more, and it took days to do the focusing in the first place. It's very complicated because insects only behave in certain ways if they're in a favourable environment."

But he and Perennou felt that it mattered to find a human side to their stars. "We insisted on showing the small failures of life, the troubles, all the small problems that can happen to you. And it's always fun to see that other people are in trouble."

But those keen to see this glimpse of the world of the very small will have only a single chance. No distributor has picked up the options on the UK film rights. "There's a lot of interest but nothing definite yet," said a spokeswoman for President Films in Paris.

One American critic has said that the film "could do for insects what ET did for aliens". Certainly they're both bug-eyed and brown-skinned, although only one is likely to be ahead of you for the phone.