Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Microcosmos: People of the Grass (1996)

Video Available on Bing Video

I can take a hint.  Having grudgingly allowed me to exceed my allotted number of column-inches in last month’s paper, the editors of the Mainstreet threatened me with legal action if I ever did it again.  I’m sure that with the passage of time they’ll return to being their usual forgiving selves, but meanwhile I’ve decided to err on the side of caution.  How about a review of a 77-minute documentary on insects?

Hey, I’m serious.  There’s a lot to be said about a really good 77-minute documentary on insects.  A lot, but hopefully not over three columns’ worth.  The film I’m talking about is Microcosmos: People of the Grass (1996).  Aside from craven surrender to editorial authority, I also chose Microcosmos because it’s been a while since I looked at a good family film.  People of the Grass earns a solid “G” rating despite occasional scenes of sex and violence.  Morality is less of an issue when the sex involves the mating rituals of snails or ladybugs, and the violent offenders are spiders and pheasants.  Besides, the main point of the film is to astonish us, not make us run screaming from the room the next time a daddy longlegs turns up on the sofa.

Microcosmos was truly a labor of love.  The filmmakers, Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, are biologists first and directors second.  They worked under none of the time constraints felt by mainstream filmmakers.  Their end product was the result of 15 years of research, including two years to design the new cameras and magnifying lenses which would allow them to go where no entomologist had gone before.  Capturing the two dozen individual sequences used in Microcosmos took three years of shooting.  It probably took James Cameron less time to explore the wreck of the Titanic than it did for the directors of Microcosmos to go eyeball to eyeball with that single larval mosquito that rises up out of the water, near the end of the film, like a harbinger of the Apocalypse.

At the time of their movie’s release, Pérennou and Nuridsany were rewarded with the Technical Grand Prize at the 1996 Cannes festival and the Best Cinematography César at France’s equivalent of the Academy Awards.  This must have been a spectacular work to see on a full-size screen.  Despite the splendid richness of the mammalian, reptilian, aviary and piscine orders, there’s nothing to quite match the utterly inexhaustible alienness of the insect world.  There are 8600 species of birds, and over 140,000 species of butterflies.  There are nearly as many species of cockroaches as there are of mammals.  Insects outnumber humans by a factor of twelve million to one; they’ve been on this planet 185 times longer than we have.  One of the most fascinating museums in the world has to be the Insectarium in Montreal’s Jardin Botanique.  Every color scheme, every abstract or expressionistic design, every shade of iridescence or luminescence, every symmetry of grace or convolution of grotesqueness, every evolutionary instrument of motion, sensation, or death is on display.

In Microcosmos, a single rhinoceros beetle lumbers across the miniaturized landscape like a resurrected Triceratops.  As one reviewer commented, “It’s Jurassic Park in your own back yard.”  There’s enough inspiration here for a thousand science fiction, fantasy, and horror films.

Microcosmos opens with a live-action version of that great NFB short “Zoom,” which in about five minutes took the viewer from the vantage point of a boy sitting in a boat on a lake out to the furthest reaches of the universe,  and then back down the proboscis of a mosquito feeding on the boy’s arm and into the subcellular universe.  Microcosmos inhabits the mosquito’s world, where the mere surface tension of water becomes as tangible as a trampoline.  A diving spider manipulates air bubbles the way a chef tosses pizzas.  Raindrops geyser into fluid sculptures which were almost certainly the inspiration for the high-tech morphing animations in Terminator 2 and The Abyss.  My favorite moment is the one where a giant raindrop strikes a blade of grass and launches a ladybug into a freefalling back somersault.

Pérennou and Nuridsany’s picture is a feast for the ears as well as for the eyes. Laurent Quaglio deserves kudos for his création sonore, an audio landscape which captures the multitudinous natural sounds filling this miniature world.  It’s the best audioscape I’ve heard since the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink.

There is one thing which Microcosmos does not have.  A narrator.  If you’re watching this with your children and one of them asks what’s going on, you’re on your own.  If it’s any consolation, I would suspect that in some instances entomologists themselves don’t have a clue.  How long did it take Karl von Frisch to figure out how bees identified distance sources of nectar?  Do stag beetles really fight, or is this the insect equivalent of the WWF?  Are snail mating rituals as sensuous as they look?  Why do processional caterpillars march in single file? Did the dung beetle who rolled his ball of dung onto a thorn get it off by accident or intention?  Does an aphid farm run by ants operate much differently from the Douglas Lake Cattle Company?  And what the heck are those two ants doing with the drop of water between their interlaced mandibles?

These kinds of in-your-face wonders have always inspired those who favour Creationism over evolution.  Explain this! they cry, and point to the Orphyrus Orchid which guarantees its propagation by looking so much like a specific species of bee that bees of that species try to mate with it.  Secular or divine, Microcosmos reaffirms the miracle we all inhabit when we open our senses wide enough.  Evolutionary biologist JBS Haldane, asked what he thought our world taught us about the nature of its Creator, replied succinctly, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”

The Arts have not been kind to insects.  In literature, we have Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Karl Capek’s The World We Live In: The Insect Play.  Bugs generally turn up in horror flics as giant mutants devouring hapless humans.  Even The Hellstrom Chronicle, that distinguished cinematic forebear of Microcosmos, had an irreverently paranoid narrative line which condemned humanity to ultimate servitude or extinction at insect, um, “hands.” Perhaps this reflects our unconscious awareness that bees and wasps kill more people each year than all large “man-eating” predators combined.  People of the Grass is a welcome, loving effort to redress the balance.  Get out your magnifying glasses & microscopes.  And let’s hope for an encore.

(P.S. Thanks to David Day for the excellent chapter on insects in his book The Eco Wars: True Tales of Environmental Madness.  For those you who still relish insectile paranoia, stick Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic in your DVD player after the kids have gone to bed: giant mutant insects devouring hapless humans in the New York subway system.  Cool.)

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

Mind-bending macrophotography.  Superbly sensual soundscape.  No more words needed.  Watch & Regale.  No greater miracle than these.  Check out the “cast list” at the end.

Composer Bruno Coulais currently has an impressive198 credits on Imdb, and a career which has now spanned more than four decades.

This was cinematographer Thierry Machado’s first film.  He has made only eight films in the years since.

This was also directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’s first film, with only three later films for Nuridsany and two for Pérennou.

Given the subject matter of Microcosmos, I can’t resist the opportunity to throw in another plug for one of my all-time favorite museums:  Montreal’s Insectarium.  I used to visit it yearly on field trips with students, and my faith in the unending marvels of the natural world was renewed with each visit.  Imagine walking into a place that had the greatest work of the film industry’s best costume designers and special effects artists, except in miniature.  That’s the Insectarium.  The building has recently been radically redesigned, and I can’t wait to see it after its metamorphosis.  The original, incredible collection was largely the result of one entomophile, Georges Brossard, whose global quest for specimens makes Indiana Jones look like a slacker.  Brossard donated 250,000 insect specimens to the city of Montreal in the 1980s, with the proviso that a building be created to house them for public display.  Brossard died in 2019, at age 79.  Unfortunately, I believe both Brossard’s autobiography and biography are available only in French.    A Canadian Encyclopedia article on Brossard & the Insectarium will be found here:


Movie Information

Genre: Documentary
Director: Claude Nuridsany, Marie Pérennou
Year: 1996
Original Review: May 1998


Offoffoff Film

Parts of this website remain active as I write this, while other portions date back to the early 2000s.  Still a good reference site, with archived reviews of hundreds of less-well-known films.  A great place to browse for titles like Pray the Devil Back to Hell, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, What’s the Matter with Kansas? The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, and Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer. Some more mainstream films are also featured, such as Inglorious Basterds, Burn After Reading, Precious, and Brideshead Revisited.  There’s also an interesting Links page, with active connections to film festivals (including the Toronto and Vancouver Film Festivals) and a plethora of cinema-related sites for all tastes & interests.  Also some Top 10 Lists from 1999-2004. 

From the site intro:  “OFFOFFOFF.COM’s mission is to cover alternative arts of all kinds in New York City — independent film, off-off-Broadway theater, local music, non-commercial radio, and whatever else we can think of. It was created by a journalist and a computer specialist who were sitting in a theater one day after watching a terrific independent movie called Lena’s Dreams and wondered why there wasn’t a source of information that would let people know about the many great events in New York that don’t necessarily get written up in the major papers and don’t involve animated Disney characters or dancing alley cats. So we decided to start one.

We have a talented staff of dozens of contributors — some of them experienced journalists with a background in the arts, some of them artists who write. We’ve been doing this since late 1999 (minus a hiatus in 2006 and 2007), and we’ve published … let’s see … 1,694 articles on independent arts to date.”

A daughter chases her father’s ghost down the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Writing for, this is Tom Roston’s 2017 interview with Nicholas Schrunk, the director of Blood Road—an impressive documentary about ultra-endurance mountain bike athlete Rebecca Rusch’s journey to retrace the route on which her father’s plane was shot down during the Vietnam War.  Blood Road can be purchased or rented through YouTube and iTunes.

The outrage over Gal Gadot’s $300,000 paycheck for Wonder Woman, Explained

An interesting article Alex Abad-Santos article from in 2017, illustrating why the internet can be a less-than-reliable source of information and explaining how stars earn their salaries on superhero movies.  From the article:

“Deadline, a well-sourced trade publication like Variety, reported in 2010 that Chris Evans was paid around $300,000 to star in Captain America: The First Avenger. And the Hollywood Reporter points out that Chris Hemsworth made $150,000 initially for appearing in Thor.

These salary numbers feel like drops in the bucket compared with what superhero movies usually rake in at the box office — Captain America: The First Avenger made $370 million worldwide and Thor made $449 million worldwide. Wonder Woman has already surpassed $570 million worldwide. But they also don’t include or consider things like a box office bonus, whether an actor has contractual obligations to appear in future movies, and whatever kind of deals are made for additional compensation that is dependent on the movie’s success.

What Evans and his fellow Marvel stars — most notably Robert Downey Jr. — have done in the wake of their respective successes is renegotiate their contracts. Downey famously parlayed the initial $500,000 he made for Iron Man into $50 million for his appearance in 2012’s first Avengers film.

And Gadot will have the same opportunity as she negotiates potential future Wonder Woman films.”

Personally, I’m waiting for debut of the mini-series featuring Gal Gadot as Hedy Lamarr.  There has been a string of Lamarr biographies published in recent years, including Richard Rhodes’ excellent Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.   

Films Worth Talking About:

Cable Guy, Crash, Some Mother’s Son, Mission: Impossible, Trees Lounge, Walking and Talking, Flirting With Disaster, Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Spitfire Grill, Jude, Secrets and Lies, Breaking the Waves, Extreme Measures, Evita, Lone Star, Independence Day, Twister, Eraser, The Rock, Trainspotting, The Nutty Professor, The First Wives Club, Tin Cup, Michael Collins, The Pillow Book, Fargo, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Craft, Emma, A Time to Kill, Striptease, Twelfth Night or What You Will, That Thing You Do!

The Bigger Picture

FilmsThe Hellstrom Chronicle (1971); Insectia (2002) & Insectia2 (2005) [TV series]; Winged Migration (2001); Atlantis (1991)

MusicBruno Coulais, double CD from Naive

Books:  “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” Carl Stephenson; Pictures from the Insects’ LifeKarel Čapek; Darlyne Murowski & Nancy Honovich, Ultimate Bugopedia; Robin Bernard, Insects; National Audobon Field Guide to Insects and Spiders: North America; Michael S. Engel & Tom Balone, Innumerable Insects: the Story of the Most Diverse and Myriad Animals on Earth; Merrill A. Peterson, Pacific Northwest Insects; Peter Haggard & Judy Haggard, Insects of the Pacific Northwest; Barbara Kahle, Geoges Brossard; Georges Brossard & Barbara Kahle, Maudite Passion.

The Word on the Street

I saw the Winged Migration before this one and I though that was the most beautiful and amazing films ever made. I never though I would be proved wrong soon. Microcosmos has everything Winged Migration has, such as amazing cinematography, beautiful music and the best studio ever, our planet, it also has something more – the whole new world to show that most people don’t realise exists. “Look at your feet, this funny world.” starts the beautiful song while the opening credits roll and we are treated to a beautiful flight through the clouds. The camera pans down, to the forest and then lower still. Thus starts the most amazing journey you ever saw on film and for the next hour you can’t take your eyes of the screen.   [danila­­_1]

If you read some comments complaining about the little-to-non-existent narration is because they fail to understand this “documentary” is not about getting the facts straight. It is an experience and as such it is to be lived not to be told.
Sit on the grass, observe, and paint the daughter of the dragonfly.   [makenai]

If you liked this film, there’s another French nature documentary worth checking out, Luc Besson’s aquatic documentary Atlantis, with music by Eric Serra (as always) and no narration. Unfortunately, this film is rather rare in the US, and I’ve yet to find a copy, but I’m looking.   [Eviljornr]

The cinematography is quite possibly the BEST I’ve ever
seen, and between 2 years of equipment design and 3 years of
shooting (not to mention 15 years of research!), I suppose that
perfection is the natural outcome.   [Squrpleboy]