Don’t be put off by the title. Or the poster. Or the premise… The Swarm might be a film about killer grasshoppers, but it has more in common with brooding Oscar winner Minari than most bug B-movies. The feature debut of director Just Philippot, the slow-burning French body horror was selected for International Critics’ Week at Cannes – with a poignant, delicately drawn social drama hiding beneath all the buzzing locusts.
Better translated as “the thick cloud” from the original La Nuée, the real killer fog hanging over The Swarm is poverty. Virginie (Suliane Brahim) is a single mum trying everything she can to keep the family farm going for her two children, Laura (Marie Narbonne) and Gaston (Raphael Romand). Without enough land and water for crops and animals, she starts farming locusts instead – grinding up the dead bugs into protein rich flour for animal feed and organic markets. Keeping grasshoppers is hard work, especially when they start drying up and dying off through lack of food, and it doesn’t take long before things look really bleak.
Faced with bankruptcy and ruin, Virginie loses her temper and starts smashing stuff up, cutting her arm and blacking out. When she wakes up, the hoppers are all slurping up her blood and looking a lot healthier. It’s easy to guess where things go from here: pig’s blood leads to pet goats, pet goats lead to lost dogs, lost dogs lead to the kind of thing the schlocky poster promises – but The Swarm still manages to keep a safe distance from being the kind of film it still probably sounds like.
If you hate bugs you’ll probably have a hard time watching some of the close-up crawling/creeping/nibbling (and a few gory moments will probably keep you out of the long grass for a while) but Philippot rarely leans into the terror, preferring to focus on the real-world horror of a family slowly being torn apart by financial worry. There’s something being said here about the global food crisis and the way humans exploit natural resources, but The Swarm is more concerned with just how far some people have to go to try and stay afloat – literally bleeding themselves dry to keep food on the table.
Brahim leads the film with an exceptionally strong performance (not many actors can pull off heartache, desperation and mad obsession while covered in grasshoppers…) and Philippot balances social drama and creeping dread with real delicacy – giving welcome breathing space to slow, procedural farm work, painful dinner table conversations and hard-spent teenage angst while the locusts drone in the background. A rushed finale wraps things up a bit too neatly with a big nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and Sofian Khammes’ next-door neighbour/love interest feels undersold and unnecessary, but The Swarm still flies high to deliver a smart, original and wholly unexpected bug movie.
- Director: Just Philippot
- Starring: Suliane Brahim, Marie Narbonne, Sofian Khammes
- Release date: August 6 (Netflix)