Ever since seeing Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), I have been more than a little wary of our so-called feathered friends. Fellini called the film an "apocalyptic poem". Based on a novella by Daphne du Maurier, it tells the story of what happens when the quiet Californian town of Bodega Bay is suddenly attacked by tens of thousands of birds. The birdlike Camille Paglia called it "a perverse ode to women's sexual glamour", but this is patent nonsense, and if you want a jolly good laugh you should read her essay on the film: it's a classic of its kind, in that it has absolutely nothing to do with the film and everything to do with Paglia. Hitch himself described the movie thus: "The Birds expresses nature and what it can do, and the dangers of nature, because there's no doubt if the birds did decide . . . with the millions that there are, to go for everybody's eyes, then we'd have H G Wells's 'country of the blind' on our hands." If the film is a metaphor for anything, it is about the dangers of nuclear power.
I was thinking about Hitchcock's film a lot as I watched a new documentary from France that follows the flight patterns of migratory birds. The makers of Winged Migration developed flying cameras and trained several kinds of bird not to be afraid of them, in order to get up close and personal. For about 15 minutes, the birds in flight look fascinating and the film lets you feel just what it is to be one of them. If you're in the mood for a film of enormous beauty that opens your eyes to the wonders of nature, etc, this is a must-see.
If like me, however, you think Hitch was on the right track and that there is something sinister about birds, then this film will merely serve to reinforce that feeling. Birds, especially lots of them, are creepy. There's a sequence in this film when a bunch of cranes land in a field of tall grass that looks exactly like the scene in The Lost World: Jurassic Park where a bunch of velociraptors chase down some human-sized, not-so-fast food. Ask any palaeontologist familiar with the phylogeny of vertebrates, and they will tell you that birds are avian dinosaurs descended from the maniraptoran dinosaur and could technically be considered reptiles. It doesn't get any creepier than that.
Watching Winged Migration, it wasn't long before I was wondering what Hitch would have done if he had possessed the photographic facilities available to the film's co-producer, narrator and co-director, Jacques Perrin; and I dare say that even now, someone in Hollywood is planning to remake Hitchcock's film employing the Frenchman's innovative cinematography. About 45 minutes into the film, I nodded off, only to awake again with a delighted cheer as I heard a sweet sound, not of birdsong but of gunfire. Thank God, I thought; at last, something's going to happen. Several ducks duly dropped out of their squadron formation and hit the ground like so many pilots who had forgotten their parachutes, to be retrieved by the gun dogs of what looked like a French shooting party. Not all Frenchmen like to shoot birds with a camera. From a purely cinematic point of view, the excitement this scene afforded me was limited only by the ducks being unable to shoot back - or, at the very least, to peck the eyes from their assailants.
As Hitchcock also said, "Nature can be awful rough on you", and for sheer Poe-like horror, you could hardly better the scene where a goose with a broken wing lands on a beach and finds not a lonely, crippled painter (see Paul Gallico's novel The Snow Goose), but an army of hungry crabs that eat the creature alive.
Conversely, it goes without saying that the French can be mighty rough on nature, as any goose on the Perigord equivalent of the Atkins diet could tell you. But to be fair, the French are no less careless of stupid human sensibilities. For example, in these politically correct times, it is hard to imagine the English or the Americans making a hideous, myopic, fat old woman with a moustache and a surgical boot the heroine of an animated film - except perhaps to show her triumphing at the World Athletics Championships in the 800 metres for women with a lower-limb disability. And if another reason were needed to admire the French, other than the foreign policy opposition they continue to offer Bush and Blair, then Belleville Rendezvous is it.
Grotesquely well-observed, inventively rendered and gloriously politically incorrect - the French have never looked so ugly - it is the animated equivalent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Delicatessen and, for adults at least, a perfect antidote to the slick sentimentalities of Disney. Not to mention the gorgeous boredom of watching birds in flight.
Winged Migration (U) and Belleville Rendezvous (12a) are out on general release