Talk about your insanely ambitious projects: Filmmaker Jacques Perrin got it in his head to record, on film, the many varieties of annual migration to be found in the avian world. Animal actors in general are tough enough, but birds in particular are recalcitrant and skittish subjects, particularly when they're going about the business of survival. It worked, though: Winged Migration, the product of Perrin's vision, was nominated for the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary this year. (It lost out to Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine.)
The scope of the undertaking is mind-boggling, as is its result. To shoot around the world, on every continent (yes, even Antarctica), Perrin assembled five crews. While the very nature of the film would demand at least a year just to record one full cycle of the birds' travels, Perrin shot for three years, in order to show a range of migrations, over every sort of landscape and seascape on the planet. The sheer beauty of the scenery serves both as a pleasure on its own and as an integral part of the movie's overall strategy.
It goes without saying that much of the footage had to be shot from the air -- a necessity that presents obvious problems. Helicopters and airplanes are too noisy, so the crew also employed noiseless gliders and balloons. They manage to get remarkably close-in footage of more than 50 varieties of birds, and one's sense of gliding along next to them, as if a member of the flock, is perhaps the film's greatest accomplishment.
In truth, Perrin is not interested merely in recording. Moved by our age-old -- possibly even inborn -- jealousy of flight, he attempts nothing less than to give us a taste of the birds' sense of freedom, something that humans can only approximate in dreams. Perrin (doing his own voiceover) provides nothing more than minimal narration, so as not to break the spell.
Of course, this sort of strategy does not provide the usual pleasures of a straightforward narrative. Viewers, confronted by a film with such a determinedly calm tone and no plot to follow or characters to focus on, will find that it's easy for the mind to wander at times. There are moments of humor, suspense, and even horror -- I nearly jumped out of my seat at one point -- but Perrin seems reluctant to do anything that will make the film seem more . . . let's say . . . earthbound.
Winged Migration won the Cesar -- France's equivalent of the Oscar -- for Best Editing, and deservedly so. This sort of movie is largely created in the editing room: It's unlikely, for instance, that the avalanche we're watching is the same one to which we see penguins (in a relatively tight shot) reacting.
Perrin has had a long film career, primarily as an actor -- he was the investigative reporter in Z, the adult version of the protagonist in Cinema Paradiso, and the center of the framing device in Brotherhood of the Wolf -- but he also produced Z, Himalaya, and Microcosmos. Here, for the first time, he turns director and succeeds brilliantly. Winged Migration may not be everybody's cup of tea -- not your basic high school date movie, for sure -- but it is a rich, contemplative 90 minutes for those who can relax and go with its genuine flow.