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Kline, T.J. (1996). Angels and Insects: Hass's Angle on Incest. Psychoanal. Rev., 83(5):777-780.

(1996). Psychoanalytic Review, 83(5):777-780

Film Notes

Angels and Insects: Hass's Angle on Incest

T. Jefferson Kline, Ph.D.

In Truffaut's Jules and Jim, Jules tells his French friend, “Perhaps someday I shall return to literature and write a love novel whose characters would be insects.” It remained for A. S. Byatt to take up this challenge in her novella Morpho Eugenia (1992) and for Philip Haas to adapt it for the screen in his recent Angels and Insects. Haas has succeeded in capturing much of the complexity and very nearly all of the perversity of Byatt's novella in his adaptation. Text and film swarm with analogies to societies of both butterflies and ants, many of which toy quite maliciously with the conventional use of such analogies. If “beauty” and “industry” are the conventional anthropocentric adjectives applied to butterflies and ants, respectively, they are hardly the only terms of comparison between “higher” and “lower” forms of life. Metamorphosis, for example, is a trait shared by both insects and angels, for very often “things are not what they appear to be” in both worlds. Yet among humans, metamorphosis does not always produce a more beautiful nature.

Haas's film opens with images of wild, frenzied movement, danced by aboriginals of the Amazons around the film's protagonist, William Adam-son (Mark Rylance), images that soon dissolve into an entirely “proper” waltz in a Victorian manor. Haas's montage surely suggests that the proper exterior of the British dancers masks hearts buffeted by savage desires, but the suggestion is likely to be forgotten as we are swept under the thrall of the Alabaster family's cold and calculating world. A recent victim of shipwreck, William has arrived at the home of his benefactor, Harald Alabaster, to offer him the few salvaged specimens from his entomological researches in the Amazons, notably the rarest of butterflies, the “Morpho Eugenia.” Our hero, however, has been immediately and irremediably attracted to Harald's lily white daughter, Eugenia (Patsy Kensit), whose wardrobe of electric blues and striped blacks and yellows would rival the gaudiest of the butterfly species. William is quick to remark that in the butterfly world it is the male who dresses so extravagantly to attract his mate; here the reverse. Eugenia seems to take pleasure in contravening this law of nature.

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