Love call of the wild
DIRECTED by Laurent Charbonnier, Animals in Love is a French documentary about the mating practices of animals in the wild and one of the most beautiful nature films I have seen. If it had been made by a Hollywood studio you would expect to hear the Cole Porter song Let’s Do It on the soundtrack.
We’ve long known that the birds and bees do it, and even educated fleas do it, but discovering just how they do it, and what precedes the doing of it, is a source of endless fascination.
Charbonnier and his crew spent two years filming in 16 countries, and for Australian audiences the stars are likely to be a couple of kangaroos. I sensed more chemistry between them than I did last week between Hugh and Nicole in a similar landscape. One shot shows them nuzzling each other’s faces while the forepaw of the smaller roo rests on the shoulder of the other in an embrace both submissive and protective. The film abounds in such charming images: there are enough of them to fill any number of photographic calendars. The shots of a joey clambering awkwardly into its mother’s pouch would alone have justified Charbonnier’s visit to Australia.
It seems that when African chimps in trees do it they spend a good deal of time in amorous foreplay. In one favoured technique the apes sit facing each other on a high, secluded branch, while the male uses its hand to guide some part of itself to the target. It is difficult to avoid such arch formulations when describing Animals in Love . Sometimes it is hard to see exactly what is happening. Charbonnier’s cameras keep a seemly and respectful distance from their subjects. This is a film free of both prurient suggestion and the kind of anthropomorphic sentimentality suggested by its title.
Even when an animal’s behaviour seems touchingly human we are reluctant to suspect some whimsical fakery or clever cutting. We take it as a reminder that animal and human behaviour are much the same. There is a delightful scene when a lion approaches a sleeping mate. Rather than rudely awakening her and getting on with the game, he waits while she rouses herself. We suspect the lioness may have a headache or be otherwise disinclined because she makes a pretence of getting to her feet before slumping down again as if too tired to move. Perhaps she’s teasing. But the male waits calmly. And as they walk away from the camera together, we notice a few tentative contacts before the lion’s good manners are rewarded.
No, Cole Porter just wouldn’t have done for this film. Instead we get a surprisingly sweet, almost lyrical, score from Philip Glass, whose repeated phrases and insistent rhythms seem well matched to practices and rituals in which repetition and persistence are distinguishing qualities. Some of those grunts and squeals may be parts of Glass’s score. And I say that in praise of the film.
Except briefly at the beginning and end we hear no human voice. The only sounds are those heard above the awesome silence of the wild — a sighing wind, a bubbling stream, a patter of rain — or the cries of the animals themselves.
But can we be sure that this is really what we hear? My guess is that many animal sounds were synthesised, or amplified and modified after the original recording. The agitated chattering of monkey’s teeth, the rapid fluttering of wings, the thump and clatter of horns, paws and hooves are strikingly intense, rhythmic and distinctive. I suppose there would be nothing wrong with enhancing recorded sounds, but it would be interesting to know if this were done. The effect, in any case, is appealing.
We are given endless insights into different mating rituals. I hadn’t realised that the iridescent plumage of the peacock can turn into a kind of cage, closing to imprison the hen when she ventures too near; or that rival stags may spend hours locked in combat, their horns tangling like the swords or rapiers of fencers while the female looks on; that a male giraffe will deliver a playful whack with the full length of his neck to the backside of his partner. Here are swans nuzzling eagerly while gliding over water like cyclists in tandem, bright little parrots pecking and grooming each other’s heads in an ecstasy of pleasure, birds and beavers building their nests with sticks and branches.
All this leads to the marvels of birth and nurturing: the hatching chicks, the baby elephant standing for the first time, the upturned beaks of nestlings awaiting their particles of food.
What these animals are doing may be purely instinctive behaviour. But Charbonnier has no trouble persuading us that some sort of natural affection lies behind it. Love may not be too strong a word. James Thurber once wrote that an animal lover is not a person who loves animals, but an animal that loves another animal. That could well be the text for the film.
The commentary, dubbed into English in the version I saw, may be a bit too starry-eyed, and perhaps there are too many bird shots in the early stages before the canvas begins to broaden. But these are small quibbles. Among many great nature films, from Disney’s classic The Living Desert, to Microcosmos and the glorious Travelling Birds , this is surely the most reverent and moving. For animal lovers — in Thurber’s sense or otherwise — it will be essential viewing and bring a tear to many eyes.
What’s that, Skip? The Australian stars of the beautiful nature documentary Animals in Love