Nature documentary invites audience to take flight
It’s not entirely unusual to find marvelous subject matter in nature documentaries—that goes, more or less, with the territory. But it is rare that such films have a technical virtuosity that is a marvel in its own right.
Winged Migration, Jacques Perrin’s ravishing film about migrating birds, is one of those rare treasures. On its images alone, this film would be 90 minutes of bird-watchers’ delight. But Perrin and company have produced something even better than that—a richly engaging feature film which honors its subject, makes brilliant use of the medium, and captivates audiences, regardless of whether or not they’re bird-lovers.
One way of explaining this is to say that Winged Migration is both a nature documentary and an aviation movie. A key part of the film’s appeal comes from its rapturously lyrical aerial shots, including especially those in which the camera and audience are, in effect, flying with the birds, emphasis on with, over various spectacular landscapes in the Northern Hemisphere. The magnificence and exhilaration of those shots are, as the saying goes, worth the price of admission all by themselves.
It is also a brilliantly edited film, and another part of its special power comes from an uncommonly rich intertwining of images and sounds. Perrin’s voice-over narration (read in English by novelist Philippe Labro) is brief, spare and infrequent, and most of the images are accompanied by alternating blends of Bruno Colais’ variously ethereal soundtrack music and a richly evocative selection of ambient sounds. It’s one more way in which the film invites us to experience nature and not just look at it.
While human intrusions on all this are generally at a minimum, threats to the birds from humans and within nature itself are among the more significant motifs. Assorted glimpses of man-made disturbances—a threshing machine in a nesting ground, an industrially polluted river, hunters with rifles, a zoo-collector’s boat in Brazil—serve as haunting counterpoints to the film’s immersion in the mostly silent and peaceful flow of natural cycles.
All this is extended on the simplest of narrative premises—a year in the life of various species of birds (in every hemisphere, but with particular emphasis on North America), northward in spring, southward in fall. But the refusal to load the images up with story angles and/or scientific information is part of what helps this quietly poetic movie take flight.
Coulais’ music occasionally errs on the kitschy side, and Perrin allows occasional moments of cutesy humor. But Winged Migration mostly steers clear of the sentimentality and anthropomorphism which mar so many nature documentaries. A lofty, genuine nobility is the overriding impression here.
Perrin, by the way, is a more familiar figure than may at first be apparent. He also produced the recent nature documentary Microcosmos, and appeared memorably as an actor in a number of French films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He was the valiant young prosecutor in Costa-Gavras’ Z and the visionary sailor-artist in Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort.