Angels and Insects is a complex film
that accomplishes the challenging task of making the viewer increasingly
uncomfortable while simultaneously surrounding them with beautiful images and
music. It follows a relatively simple plot that is truly anything but: A
British naturalist, William, is taken in by a wealthy family in the 1800s after
his ship sinks on his return from an expedition in the Amazon. He quickly falls
in love with the daughter, Eugenia, and after their marriage, discovers that
she has been having an affair with her older brother for the majority of her
young life. William leaves the estate with Matty, who works as a tutor for the
family. On the surface, the film reads as a typical drama / period piece (with
an unsettling twist), but the film presents much more complexity beneath the
surface. Films can be assessed in a variety of ways, including as a product of
a global money-making industry, an object of a technical art and craft, an
example of a narrative form (genre), and/or as a cultural artifact that
provides cultural insight from the time of production. This film can be viewed
with any of these factors in mind, but it most strongly presents itself as an
object of a technical art and craft, due to the complex, layered meanings and
artistic visual design.

            Angels and Insects was not a box-office smash,
but it was well received by critics across the globe. It grossed just over $5.3
million in the United States, and was nominated for an Oscar for best costume
design (“Angels and Insects”, IMDb). The actors were not extremely well-known
or popular in the United States, which may have contributed to the smaller
box-office success.  Film critics praised
Kristin Scott Thomas for her portrayal of Matty, who serves as an anchor
throughout the film, although her character is often overlooked. She was
nominated for several awards, and won Best Actress at the Evening Standard
British Film Awards (“Angels and Insects”, IMDb). Although critics generally also
praise the costume design and artistic value in production, there seems to be
mixed reviews concerning the overall acting and story arc in this film. It is
based on a novella “Morpho Eugenia”, which, much like the movie, received mixed
critical reception (“Angels and Insects”, IMDb). It seems that the movie
developed a bit of an underground cult status in this way: viewers and critics
either highly praise Angels and Insects for
its subtlety and brilliant artistic decisions, or hate the film for its slow
pace and stylistic decisions. It strongly feels as if the director did not
intend for this film to be a facet of the global money making industry, but
rather as an artistic piece meant to make a subtle, yet powerful, statement.

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are sets of images and sounds that are carefully selected and then deliberately
put together in order to create a feature-length film (Bishop 2017). This is
where Angels and Insects’ strengths
become clear. The mise-en-scene, or the way in which images are linked through
the use of editing, creates meaning for the viewers (Bishop 2017). In this
film, the mise-en-scene is untraditional and interrupted with close up,
sometimes uncomfortable images of insects (particularly ants and butterflies).
The voice of the main character, which often overlays these images, comes
across as passive – almost monotone – like a nature documentarian describing
the scene for the viewer. This translates into the film itself: William’s place
as the observational naturalist continues, yet he becomes, in a sense, tangled
in the complicated familial web that has been meticulously and artificially created
by the Alabaster family. These close up images, which are often purposely
contrasted with certain characters and scenes, force comparison between the
people and their actions with the mindless, biologically-ruled insects.

costume design in this film is superb, and tells the viewer almost from the
very beginning of the film that the Alabasters are distinct, and insect-like. The
dresses that female characters wear within the family are often decorated with
exquisite flora and fauna, made with patterns and textures that resemble nature
and connect the family to the insects William so carefully studies. It is hard
to ignore this connection, especially with Lady Alabaster and Eugenia. Lady
Alabaster, with her largely immobile, gluttonous lifestyle and large
physicality, clearly symbolizes the original queen bee / ant of the family.
Eugenia, who seems quite innocent at the beginning of the film, (as represented
in her butterfly-like colorful clothing), slowly becomes the queen insect
herself: she becomes almost a perfect double for her mother during her
pregnancy scenes and continues to resemble her beyond. As she continues to
rapidly have more children, her appearance deteriorates, and her place within
the insect colony becomes solidified. In contrast, Matty’s appearance is rather
plain and drab (with black hair), as is the case for most of the servants who
are working for the Alabaster colony. After the scene describing the red ants capturing
the black ants, it becomes quite clear that this natural phenomenon is being
replicated right in front of the viewer.

soundtrack to this film is also quite interesting: it is beautiful and
classical, which fits with the period piece style, yet it feels almost haunting
in a way, which fits well with the subject matter of the film. The music also
indicates to the viewer how they should react to certain scenes: in love scenes
or happier scenes during the beginning, the music is soft and comforting, but
slowly throughout the film, the music transforms into something much more
sinister and stressful. This is seen most clearly when William leaves the hunt
in order to find Eugenia: the music steadily grows louder and more intense,
which alerts the viewer that something pivotal is going to happen.

film also takes on feminist undertones through the mise-en-scene. Matty is
overlooked by William in terms of her appearance (with the exception of a small
attraction later in the film), yet it is clear that he admires, respects, and
ultimately falls in love with Matty due to her intelligence, honestly, and
drive for both herself and William. Matty shows autonomy and freedom – what
separates humans from insects. Matty is a naturalist like William, but does not
get trapped in the web of the subjects she studies like he does. Instead, Matty
is portrayed as the voice of reason in a film that showcases characters who
have seem to forgotten they have the ability.

the film accomplishes a great deal through its art and technical choices. On
the surface, the plot is quite simple, but through the juxtaposition of insects
to the upper class, the film exposes the “fake” quality of these societies and
succeeds in much more than a box office hit. It examines complicated questions
of what it means to be human in a stratified society, and analyzes broad,
personal questions of free will in an era where these notions may be less
obtainable than society is led to believe.

work to inform the audience as to what type of story will be shown throughout
the film (Bishop 2017). They also work to inform marketers how to sell the
film, and which groups to sell it to (Bishop 2017). This film cannot be fit
neatly into one genre; rather, it seems to have roots in three categories:
drama, romance, and period piece. The trailer for Angels and Insects plays heavily upon these genres, giving viewers
glimpses into the beautiful scenery and costume design of the Victorian era,
the sordid, yet romantic sexual affairs (which are much more heavily emphasized
in the trailer than in the movie itself), and the dramatic twists and
emotionally charged scenes throughout the film. It reads much less artistic and
more like a classic Hollywood narrative, which is perhaps why some viewers were
disappointed upon viewing the film. The gothic, neo-noir subgenre of this film
perhaps more accurately describes the film’s direction and dark subject matter.
Eugenia can be viewed as a neo- femme fatale who charms William and ultimately
betrays him. Her clothing supports this idea – at the beginning of the film,
her dresses are bright and colorful and innocent, yet by the end she is
shrouded in solid colors (often black), and is shot from further away.
Audiences use genre categories in order to create their expectations for what a
film will be like, which can be useful for films with smaller budgets and less
publicity (Bishop 2017). Yet it can also be difficult to accurately represent a
film that is supposed to be much more complex than the surface indicates, so
genre becomes a bit more of a complex categorical tool.

tend to represent the time and place in cultural history at the time of their
production (Bishop 2017). Released in 1996, Angels
and Insects was written and produced during a time in which income
inequality was rising steadily in the United States. The richer were becoming
much richer and separated from the poor, who were quickly becoming poorer. This
stratification in society is reminiscent of the days of Angels and Insects, in which the elite were almost completely segregated
from the poor. This film pulls back the curtain on Victorian society, exposing
reality for the viewer. It is interesting to compare the themes from this film
and the questions that are raised from the artistic decisions and compare them
to the inequality and segregation that exists today. This film is also quite astute
in a historical sense after Darwin’s theories began to become more accessible
to the public. The questions of faith versus science that are touched upon in
the film give rare insight into the conflicting ideas of the time. Ultimately,
film critics and analysts will study films in order to help them understand
important themes, events, and issues that are embedded within a particular
culture at the time in which the film was released (Bishop 2017). This film supersedes
that idea in a way because of the fact that it introduces and questions such
broad questions concerning humanity and free will.

is a complex medium which can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on
the specific viewer. Angels and Insects
is relatively unique in the fact that it plays out much more as an artistic
statement rather than a money making endeavor. It seems that many of the movies
advertised today place great importance on this aspect of the film industry,
investing in big-name actors and spending millions of dollars on explosive
special effects and advertising. It is rare to see a film that flies under the
radar as successfully as Angels and
Insects. The films’ strengths are exhibited in its ability to act as an
object of technical art and craft, which raises wide-reaching, universal
questions about the nature of humanity. Of course, the film is ultimately a
part of the global money making industry of film, as well as an example of
genre and a cultural artifact, but Angels
and Insects is clearly a thoughtful statement film that is not afraid to
draw back the curtain and expose truth.