Movie Reviews by Mark Leeper

Microcosmos (1996) -- Breaking Waves (1996)

We still don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good review!

Microcosmos (1996)

Drama, comedy, sex, violence, and
jaw-dropping beauty, and all for free. You only
have to walk into your back yard, and the show is
every afternoon. The hitch is you need special
eyes to see it. Or you can see MICROCOSMOS. Two
French biologists have developed cameras that have
such eyes and have recorded a delightful 77 minutes
of nature. MICROCOSMOS is a film it would be
nearly impossible to dislike. It is educational
entertaining, and often quite funny.
Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 10 positive, 1 negative, 0 mixed

Few animal documentaries have ever done well as feature films. Perhaps the last successful feature film about insects was THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE, made just over a quarter of a century ago. But by anybody's standards MICROCOSMOS is a remarkable documentary. What we have is a close-up look at a French meadow on a nice day. We are here in a secret garden to appreciate the afternoon of the fauna. In the course of the film we are going to spend a pleasant interlude just admiring the very small forms of life, mostly insects, and learning to appreciate their beauty and their noble traits. Occasionally we see something a big as a pheasant, and it does look grotesquely big and ungainly as it pecks up unsuspecting ants. But more often what we are watching are ladybugs, caterpillars, and the occasional snail. True these are mostly animals you found boring in biology class, but in MICROCOSMOS you will see them like you never saw them before. This is a G-rated film that is full of erotic sex and violence like your teacher would never have wanted you to see. Your high school would have never let you observe the chance afternoon encounter and love- making between two snails. This is the scene that had members of the audience panting. For violence there is a knock down drag out fight between two beetles that is genuinely exciting, even if you can't tell one beetle from the other. Spiders capture grasshoppers, spin webs and knit them up, then suck their blood. Then there is the sheer beauty and symmetry of a mosquito emerging from water, stretching its wings and then disappearing faster than the eye can see.

In the course of the film some of the creativity of insects is amazing. A water spider builds an underwater sanctuary by repeatedly going to the surface, catching air on her body, returning underneath the surface to contribute the air to a growing bubble. When the bubble is finally large enough, the spider pulls herself and her prey into the bubble to peacefully enjoy a well-earned under-water meal. Then there is the dogged persistence of a scarab beetle rolling a ball of dung up a hill, accidentally impaling it on a thorn, and then having to figure out why it will no longer move. Now admittedly, much of what we see might be able to see free on NOVA. But there they probably would insist on telling you what you were seeing. But the insects live perfectly happily without names or words and with the exception of a sentence or two at the beginning and end of the film the film is just music and a few humorous sound effects. There is no shortage of humor and surprisingly some insects are natural comedians. For example, wonder turns to humor as we are watching a long caravan of caterpillars walking nose to tail. As they walk they merge with another line of caterpillars like two traffic lanes merging for a tunnel. When the camera pulls back we realize that the line of caterpillars has merged with itself and in now walking around in a pointless loop. Or for the pure amazement of it we watch an ant trying to break through the surface tension of a drop of water to get a drink from the interior.

MICROCOSMOS is directed by two French biologists, Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou. It took three years to shoot with special photographic equipment that took two years to develop and with a knowledge of wildlife that took fifteen years to accumulate. Nuridsany and Perennou have an incredible savvy for finding the parallels between animal and human behavior, or just a knowledge of what is beautiful in the animal world they take us to a prehistoric world with huge and odd vegetation and strangely-shaped creatures. They fumble, crawl, and tumble for 77 minutes.

MICROCOSMOS is entomological "Candid Camera." Besides a few overly corny sound effects, there is little to fault the film on. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

In a small village on the north coast
of Scotland a paralyzed man asks his childlike wife
to make love to other men in order to have the life
he can no longer give her. This is a powerful and
moving film. The photography is wildly uneven and
the last scene misgauged, but the story is
Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 27 positive, 1 negative, 4 mixed

BREAKING THE WAVES is an unusual and extremely compelling film set in the remote north of Scotland. It is set in a town long closed to outsiders where life is ruled by a tight little group of church elders, all male. As the film progresses we find that stern Calvinist values suffuse everyday life. One of the loyal daughters of the church is Bess (played by Emily Watson in an Oscar-worthy performance). Bess is a childlike woman with a strong abiding faith in God. But her feelings go beyond simple faith. She has conversations with God, voicing both parts and has formed God in the mold of the cold an unforgiving clique who run the church. Hers is a demanding and unforgiving God in this world with all rewards postponed until the next. But as the film opens, God has made a rare exception to give His Bess something wonderful. A man has fallen in love with Bess. True, Jan (played by Stellan Skarsgard) is an outsider and the elders do not trust outsiders. Still, something has opened up in the quiet, mousy Bess and she can pour out her love on a man. Jan is a rough North Sea oil driller, but Bess loves him with a fierceness that startles the people of the village. But her happiness cannot last and after a week of marriage, Jan must return to the rig. To Bess any separation is tragedy. After missing Jan unbearably she makes a deal with God to take whatever consequences to get Jan back. Then as an apparent fulfillment, Jan has a violent injury and is paralyzed and perhaps even dying. He is back to the village but unable to be with Bess in any but the most superficial way. Jan does not want to see Bess waste herself devoted to a dying man. He wants her to taste life and asks her to go and make love to men and come back to tell him about it. This request sets in motion a series of unfortunate events and a storm of conflicting emotions.

This is the fifth feature film of Danish director Lars Von Trier, best known in this country for ZENTROPA. That was a good film; this is a better one. The one thing that has not improved and, in fact, has gone considerably downhill, is the look of the film. For reasons best known to Von Trier, much of this film was apparently shot with a hand- held camera. What is more it is a camera that seems to be forever fidgeting, jumping from one person to the next. The scenes that the camera shoots, except for the chapter titles--the story is split into chapters, are almost all in subdued color. Some of the chapter titles are so beautiful they seem to be more paintings than actual scenes. The narrative is clean and well-told up until the final half hour. Then the telling becomes a little muddled. The final image of the film does things to the plot that I personally did not care for, but up until that point the story was extremely good. It is not easy to make a character as simple and straightforward as Bess as likable as she is, but the script written by Von Trier makes the viewer really feel for Bess.

Emily Watson turns in a beautiful performance, at times genuinely heartbreaking. She plays a woman who is simple--not to say dim- witted--and so totally consumed by the love of her man that nothing else has any meaning in her life. Even her love of God is superseded by her love for this gift. Hers is a degree of devotion the screen usually reserves for dogs' love of their masters. Watson is a stage actress new to the screen but whose acting instincts seem rarely short of perfect in a difficult role. Stellan Skarsgard is stolid as Jan, but his role is not one of much complexity. For much of the film he is in a horsecollar lying in bed, paralyzed from the neck down. A somewhat more interesting role goes to Katrin Cartlidge whose looks are reminiscent of Amanda Plummer. She is Bess's sister-in-law who ends up Jan's nurse. She is hostile to Jan, suspicious at first of his love of the simple Bess. Eventually she realizes the degree that he loves Bess, but then does not approve of his methods to give Bess a life independent of himself.

BREAKING THE WAVES is a powerful and a moving drama, one of the best of the year. It does not seem to be getting a lot of play, but it is worth looking for. I give it a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale.


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