It’s completely unavoidable of course, but as humans we’re born into a rather constrictive sense of size and physical space. Science is learning more about both the largest and smallest dimensions of our universe all the time, but whatever we manage to quantify and understand will always, instinctually, be compared to our own specific, highly subjective frame of reference, forever seeing everything from a few feet off the ground. We can’t completely step outside of our bodies and senses, of the only way we’ve ever experienced the world, but great art sometimes has the power to simulate that sensation. The obvious example would be Charles and Ray Eames’ exceptional Powers of Ten, which sends you zooming into deep space before bringing you down to the cellular level, but it’s hardly the only film that warps the viewer’s sense of scale to fascinating effect. Take 1996’s poetic, engrossing documentary Microcosmos, which shrinks the audience down to the size of various insects, using cutting edge technology to reveal the hidden hustle and bustle going on in a simple patch of grass.
That may sound like something you might catch on PBS, but Microcosmos is not your average nature special; in fact, while it’s usually labeled as a documentary, it largely hems closer to experimental or art cinema. Produced by prolific French filmmaker Jacques Perrin and directed by the duo of Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, the film is nearly wordless, save for a brief, wholly uninformative introduction (imagine Planet Earth if you could tell David Attenborough to just shut the fuck up for once) and in general is not really interested in teaching you much of anything about bugs. It doesn’t want you to learn about the nature that surrounds us, it wants you to experience it, intimately and immediately, in a way you’ve never been able to before. Quite literally too; with help from a team of engineers, Nuridsany and Pérennou developed their own tiny cameras, using lenses made for microscopes, which were then mounted on a miniature crane system, or, when it came to those nimble dragon flies, a remote control helicopter.
The footage is amazing even today, aesthetically, for its technological achievement and for what it captures. Filmed mostly on location in France’s Aveyron valley, Microcosmos could take place just about anywhere; indeed one of the few nuggets of information that the film gives you about its subjects is that they are “somewhere on Earth”. But while the environment and its creatures aren’t particularly exotic, the perspective achieved by the filmmakers feels like being transported to an alien world, complete with strange beings that rival science fiction’s most fevered imaginings. The effect must be even more extreme on the silver screen, but even here these minute beings feel absolutely enormous, as if they’d been exposed to radiation in some cheesy old B-movie, only instead of special effects it’s something going on right under our nose every day. Though it spends most of its time up close and personal with its crawling cast, the film jumps between a variety of shots, even aerial views and time lapse photography, the collision of which can be rather disorienting in a lysergic sort of way, especially when combined with Bruno Coulais’ evocative score.
The fact that there’s no information provided about the insects, not even their names, only makes them seem even more exquisitely strange, and since there’s no real structure to the film, aside from a loosely implied passing of the seasons, it invites you to marvel at and simply observe the natural world in a way reminiscent of Thoreau. The wonder of the natural world is absorbing enough in its own right, even without knowing what the hell is going on, but the filmmakers smartly enhance the drama, without overwhelming it, using some simple editing and music cues, which transform a struggling dung beetle into Sisyphus and a pair of mating slugs into literature’s greatest lovers. In the end though, the appeal of the film does not lie simply with seeing insects in a whole new light, although it certainly provides that (wait for the spider and the air bubbles), it’s also in the welcome, elegantly cosmic reminder that there’s more going on outside the confines our human-sized existence than we currently understand, that with the right perspective, even tiny things can be larger than life.