Among the most experimental films to be released in the U.S. this year, The Sound of Insects won the European Film Award for Best Documentary in 2009. Maybe voters wanted to honor the late right-to-die pioneer Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, as well as prove their own avant-garde bona fides, because, while far from unwatchable, Swiss filmmaker Peter Liechti's movie about an unseen man starving himself to death in the forest belies the notion that suicide is painless—at least from an observer's perspective. The profundity to tedium ratio is around 1 to 3. Not bad for a micro-release slated to screen seven times in a museum (NY's Rubin Museum of Art) but it's a film more interesting in theory than reality.
Adapted from a novel by Japanese writer Masahiko Shimada, The Sound of Insects is a visual representation of a dying man's diary. At the outset, an authoritative female voice describes how another man came upon a mummified corpse in the Austrian forest. A manuscript was found next to the body and the body of the film consists of a male narrator reading excerpts from this anonymously credited autobiography in first-person voice-over.
X's daily musings range from the mundane to the philosophically suggestive. He talks about listening to a battery-operated radio, about his bodily functions and about Christ, Buddha, and the River Styx. Conveyances such as boats, aircraft and trains seem to be of particular importance, as do the insects with whom he shares his makeshift hut. As he reflects on the process of dying in this manner (drinking only water over the course of 100+ days), we learn virtually nothing about X other than that he's well-read. (One tip: in such decaying circumstances a bottle of cologne comes in handy.)
The camera adopts X's point of view without revealing anything that might clue us in to his background, what he looks like, or provide any informative specificity to his immediate surroundings. The images become increasingly dreamlike and hallucinatory as his body weakens, and yet his words remain lucid to the end. Reverse negative shots of people walking through a train station and bright peep show lights recur with some regularity, although no meaningful pattern is discernible.
Evidently, Masahiko's novel was based on a real incident and Liechti teases the audience with the initial suggestion that this story is fact-based, and, further, that a solution to the forensic and even psychological mystery may be in the offing. This blurring of the line between fiction and non-fiction is purposefully disorienting. By then stripping away any larger context for X's actions, as well as withholding biographical details, Liechti forces the viewer to be immersed in the plight of a nameless, anonymous cipher. What that yields isn't terribly illuminating and certainly never entertaining.
The Sound of Insects has an Alpine aridity that keeps the viewer at an even greater emotional and cognitive distance than I suspect Liechti intends. X's motives for offing himself are vague. He talks of wanting to "experience every nuance of suffering" and "observe the process of my own death." The challenge being posed is why anyone else should find that experience worthwhile. X provides an interesting reason for his choice, saying he wants to "lessen the insignificance of my life with the means of my death." He, or rather Liechti, succeeds by implying that a human life may be as inconsequential or consequential as a bug's. If the point is to capture this particular commonality with nature—what many Theists and humanists in a classical western tradition would consider a nihilistic equation and source of alienation—then The Sound of Insects does what it intends. But that doesn't render it significant. Proximity to death, even one as unusual as X's, isn't a sufficient condition for wisdom.
Distributor: Lorber Films
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Peter Liechti
Running time: 87 min
Release date: December 22 NY