Angels and Insects is a complex filmthat accomplishes the challenging task of making the viewer increasinglyuncomfortable while simultaneously surrounding them with beautiful images andmusic. It follows a relatively simple plot that is truly anything but: ABritish naturalist, William, is taken in by a wealthy family in the 1800s afterhis ship sinks on his return from an expedition in the Amazon.
He quickly fallsin love with the daughter, Eugenia, and after their marriage, discovers thatshe has been having an affair with her older brother for the majority of heryoung life. William leaves the estate with Matty, who works as a tutor for thefamily. On the surface, the film reads as a typical drama / period piece (withan unsettling twist), but the film presents much more complexity beneath thesurface. Films can be assessed in a variety of ways, including as a product ofa global money-making industry, an object of a technical art and craft, anexample of a narrative form (genre), and/or as a cultural artifact thatprovides cultural insight from the time of production.
This film can be viewedwith any of these factors in mind, but it most strongly presents itself as anobject of a technical art and craft, due to the complex, layered meanings andartistic 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 $5.3million in the United States, and was nominated for an Oscar for best costumedesign (“Angels and Insects”, IMDb). The actors were not extremely well-knownor popular in the United States, which may have contributed to the smallerbox-office success. Film critics praisedKristin Scott Thomas for her portrayal of Matty, who serves as an anchorthroughout the film, although her character is often overlooked.
She wasnominated for several awards, and won Best Actress at the Evening StandardBritish Film Awards (“Angels and Insects”, IMDb). Although critics generally alsopraise the costume design and artistic value in production, there seems to bemixed reviews concerning the overall acting and story arc in this film. It isbased on a novella “Morpho Eugenia”, which, much like the movie, received mixedcritical reception (“Angels and Insects”, IMDb). It seems that the moviedeveloped a bit of an underground cult status in this way: viewers and criticseither highly praise Angels and Insects forits subtlety and brilliant artistic decisions, or hate the film for its slowpace and stylistic decisions. It strongly feels as if the director did notintend for this film to be a facet of the global money making industry, butrather as an artistic piece meant to make a subtle, yet powerful, statement. Filmsare sets of images and sounds that are carefully selected and then deliberatelyput together in order to create a feature-length film (Bishop 2017).
This iswhere Angels and Insects’ strengthsbecome clear. The mise-en-scene, or the way in which images are linked throughthe use of editing, creates meaning for the viewers (Bishop 2017). In thisfilm, 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, comesacross as passive – almost monotone – like a nature documentarian describingthe scene for the viewer.
This translates into the film itself: William’s placeas the observational naturalist continues, yet he becomes, in a sense, tangledin the complicated familial web that has been meticulously and artificially createdby the Alabaster family. These close up images, which are often purposelycontrasted with certain characters and scenes, force comparison between thepeople and their actions with the mindless, biologically-ruled insects. Thecostume design in this film is superb, and tells the viewer almost from thevery beginning of the film that the Alabasters are distinct, and insect-like. Thedresses that female characters wear within the family are often decorated withexquisite flora and fauna, made with patterns and textures that resemble natureand connect the family to the insects William so carefully studies. It is hardto ignore this connection, especially with Lady Alabaster and Eugenia.
LadyAlabaster, with her largely immobile, gluttonous lifestyle and largephysicality, clearly symbolizes the original queen bee / ant of the family.Eugenia, who seems quite innocent at the beginning of the film, (as representedin her butterfly-like colorful clothing), slowly becomes the queen insectherself: she becomes almost a perfect double for her mother during herpregnancy scenes and continues to resemble her beyond. As she continues torapidly have more children, her appearance deteriorates, and her place withinthe insect colony becomes solidified.
In contrast, Matty’s appearance is ratherplain and drab (with black hair), as is the case for most of the servants whoare working for the Alabaster colony. After the scene describing the red ants capturingthe black ants, it becomes quite clear that this natural phenomenon is beingreplicated right in front of the viewer. Thesoundtrack to this film is also quite interesting: it is beautiful andclassical, which fits with the period piece style, yet it feels almost hauntingin a way, which fits well with the subject matter of the film. The music alsoindicates to the viewer how they should react to certain scenes: in love scenesor happier scenes during the beginning, the music is soft and comforting, butslowly throughout the film, the music transforms into something much moresinister and stressful. This is seen most clearly when William leaves the huntin order to find Eugenia: the music steadily grows louder and more intense,which alerts the viewer that something pivotal is going to happen.
Thisfilm also takes on feminist undertones through the mise-en-scene. Matty isoverlooked by William in terms of her appearance (with the exception of a smallattraction later in the film), yet it is clear that he admires, respects, andultimately falls in love with Matty due to her intelligence, honestly, anddrive for both herself and William. Matty shows autonomy and freedom – whatseparates humans from insects.
Matty is a naturalist like William, but does notget trapped in the web of the subjects she studies like he does. Instead, Mattyis portrayed as the voice of reason in a film that showcases characters whohave seem to forgotten they have the ability. Ultimately,the film accomplishes a great deal through its art and technical choices.
Onthe surface, the plot is quite simple, but through the juxtaposition of insectsto the upper class, the film exposes the “fake” quality of these societies andsucceeds in much more than a box office hit. It examines complicated questionsof 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 lessobtainable than society is led to believe. Genreswork to inform the audience as to what type of story will be shown throughoutthe film (Bishop 2017). They also work to inform marketers how to sell thefilm, and which groups to sell it to (Bishop 2017). This film cannot be fitneatly 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 viewersglimpses into the beautiful scenery and costume design of the Victorian era,the sordid, yet romantic sexual affairs (which are much more heavily emphasizedin the trailer than in the movie itself), and the dramatic twists andemotionally charged scenes throughout the film.
It reads much less artistic andmore like a classic Hollywood narrative, which is perhaps why some viewers weredisappointed upon viewing the film. The gothic, neo-noir subgenre of this filmperhaps more accurately describes the film’s direction and dark subject matter.Eugenia can be viewed as a neo- femme fatale who charms William and ultimatelybetrays 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 isshrouded in solid colors (often black), and is shot from further away.Audiences use genre categories in order to create their expectations for what afilm will be like, which can be useful for films with smaller budgets and lesspublicity (Bishop 2017). Yet it can also be difficult to accurately represent afilm that is supposed to be much more complex than the surface indicates, sogenre becomes a bit more of a complex categorical tool. Filmstend to represent the time and place in cultural history at the time of theirproduction (Bishop 2017).
Released in 1996, Angelsand Insects was written and produced during a time in which incomeinequality was rising steadily in the United States. The richer were becomingmuch richer and separated from the poor, who were quickly becoming poorer. Thisstratification in society is reminiscent of the days of Angels and Insects, in which the elite were almost completely segregatedfrom the poor. This film pulls back the curtain on Victorian society, exposingreality for the viewer. It is interesting to compare the themes from this filmand the questions that are raised from the artistic decisions and compare themto the inequality and segregation that exists today. This film is also quite astutein a historical sense after Darwin’s theories began to become more accessibleto the public. The questions of faith versus science that are touched upon inthe film give rare insight into the conflicting ideas of the time. Ultimately,film critics and analysts will study films in order to help them understandimportant themes, events, and issues that are embedded within a particularculture at the time in which the film was released (Bishop 2017).
This film supersedesthat idea in a way because of the fact that it introduces and questions suchbroad questions concerning humanity and free will. Filmis a complex medium which can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending onthe specific viewer. Angels and Insectsis relatively unique in the fact that it plays out much more as an artisticstatement rather than a money making endeavor. It seems that many of the moviesadvertised today place great importance on this aspect of the film industry,investing in big-name actors and spending millions of dollars on explosivespecial effects and advertising. It is rare to see a film that flies under theradar as successfully as Angels andInsects. The films’ strengths are exhibited in its ability to act as anobject of technical art and craft, which raises wide-reaching, universalquestions about the nature of humanity.
Of course, the film is ultimately apart of the global money making industry of film, as well as an example ofgenre and a cultural artifact, but Angelsand Insects is clearly a thoughtful statement film that is not afraid todraw back the curtain and expose truth.