Love call of the wild

Evan Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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