Angels and Insects ★★★½

1995 Cannes Film Festival (In Competition)

The first worthy film in competition, which is not to say it’s adventurous in form, just that it succeeds in accomplishing everything it sets out to do. This is no slight: in terms of ideas and character, Angels and Insects sets out to do quite a lot. It depicts desire as something that dictates life’s course while clouding all judgment—an boldly deterministic outlook which applies just as much to our protagonist as to the shallow aristocracy. If there’s any hope in this world, it lies not in the transcendence of desire but in its chance alignment with intellect. Byatt and the Haases argue convincingly for work as our enduring legacy, not love—a concept all too rare in art.

There’s much to savor here: the subtle, shaded lead performances, the witty dialogue (“It’s my great amusement, thinking”), and a governing metaphor so rock-solid it can withstand constant leaning. There are many directors who would opt for airtight performances to match its thesis, but Haas gives Mark Rylance and Kristin Scott Thomas space to come into their own. Rylance does great work with his eyes, never appearing smarter or more self-aware than called for. Scott Thomas is the perfect complement, repeatedly bursting forth with sharpness and vitality despite remaining essentially invisible to William. I love how this is no tragedy for Matty. She’s not angling to be seen; it’s just the natural order of things. It's not hard to guess where Angels and Insects is headed, but its slow revelation reflects William’s denial of both his surroundings and himself. This leads to a tremendously affecting late scene with Matty where he, under her patient guidance, unwittingly stumbles past his inherited male privilege toward something like happiness.