Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé

Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"You can't help wanting to give this animal limbs or legs, when you see it moving about, its body vertical, its head horizontal. This aquatic vertebrate is strangely reminiscent of a biped."

So says Jean Painlevé near the end of his greatest (arguably his only) commercial success, The Seahorse (1934) - and they are words that cut to the very core of the filmmaker's contradictions. For he seems all at once driven by a poetic urge to analogise and even humanise his underwater subjects, while also constrained from such flights of fancy by the cold realities of science.

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The seahorse is of course nothing like a human biped, nor indeed like the horse, the caterpillar, the chameleon, the monkey or the King Charles spaniel to which he variously compares it - nor even, with its erect posture, its prehensile tail and its egg-carrying males, much like any of its sea-borne brethren (despite Painlevé's initial claim that it is just "an ordinary fish"). Through groundbreaking underwater camerawork, microscopic imagery, timelapse photography and accelerated filmspeeds, Painlevé reveals this and other, even less 'personable' sea creatures (crustaceans, molluscs, worms) in all their impenetrable oddness, usually focusing on their most bizarre attributes and behaviours - and yet his unbridled enthusiasm and his metaphorical flourishes ensure that viewers are always as engaged as they are alienated by his peculiar subject matter.

The tensions in Painlevé's approach can to a degree be explained by his background. For in the 1920s, while he was receiving his training in natural science and biology, he was also drawn to the surrealist movement - indeed his directorial debut, Methuselah (1927), comprises a series of six dramatic (and very human) sequences designed to be projected on the backdrop of a play of the same name by his friend the German Jewish surrealist Ivan Goll.

Over the next six decades, Painlevé and his wife/assistant Geneviève Hamon would go on to direct some 200 short documentaries in the natural sciences, nine of which are collected here, as well as Methuselah and Blue Beard (1938) - the latter a fantastical, operatic stop-motion clay-model version of Perrault's story, produced by Painlevé in vibrant Gasparcolor. Yet Painlevé's obsession with the monstrous fauna living as our unseen neighbours always seems to have been informed in part by a surrealist's eye for quotidian grotesquery (tempered, but also concentrated, by a scientist's painstaking attention to minutiae).

His films typically begin by orienting viewers with wide establishing shots of the coastlines and mudflats inhabited by his subaquatic stars, and then gradually zoom in to the most microscopic of biological observations. Like us, Painlevé's creatures spend their time-consuming, courting and copulating, but the devilish differences are in the details.

In Acera or the Witches' Dance (1972), watch phallic seasnails engaging in bisexual orgies (the one at the end of the poly-erotic chain in no way distracted from its mud-eating). In The Love Life of the Octopus (1965), see a female cephalopod tend dutifully to her 500,000 eggs after her air-hole has been penetrated by her partner's sperm-bearing third arm ("there's no official favourite position for that", comments the narrator drily). In How Some Jellyfish Are Born (1960), marvel at the many stages in this versatile creature's reproductive cycle, including mass colonies that look like trees. In Hyas and Stenorhynchus (1927), witness the never-before-seen camouflage of these disgruntled crustaceans and the strange ballet of the fan-twirling spirograph. In Sea Urchins (1954), be amazed at the differences between these spiky creatures' spines, suckers, pedicellariae and cilia. Or in Liquid Crystals (1978), be transported by the lysergic phantasmagoria of shapes and colours that can be viewed in the molecular structure of reactive liquids.

Still, if Painlevé's pieces play out like a freakshow of natural phenomena, the odd glimpse he provides of the human species makes it seem no less strange. Shrimp Stories (1964) may document the feeding habits, birth and metamorphoses of prawns, but it opens with a comic montage of people engaged in shrimping - including two women going round and round a rock, a man falling over, and, most disconcertingly of all, a boy's 'mother' revealed to be sporting glasses, cigar and moustache à la Groucho Marx.

On a more serious note, while Painlevé's only film devoted to a mammal, The Vampire, may focus on the blood-sucking bats of South America, the fact that its production spans the atrocities of the Second World War (it was shot in 1939 and the Duke Ellington soundtrack was added in 1945) suggests that Painlevé may be allegorising the recent vampiric conduct of a rather different mammalian species.

Although it is neither as comprehensive or indeed as coherent as either Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003 or Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films, this latest collection from BFI certainly conforms to its predecessors' rigorous standards of presentation, and even features an additional disc bringing together for the first time on DVD Painlevé's films with Yo La Tengo's excellent new score. It's not that one will easily tire of some of the original soundtracks, including Pierre Henry's electronic weirdscape for The Love Life of the Octopus, or Painlevé's own musique concrète (in homage to his friend Edgar Varèse) for Sea Urchins; but Yo La Tengo's score lends the films a free-floating continuity that they otherwise lack, making the prospect of viewing them in a single sitting seem somehow more palatable.

Reviewed on: 11 Jul 2007
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Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé packshot
Collection of groundbreaking films from the French documentarian.
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Director: Jean Painlevé, Geneviève Hamon (René Bertrand directs Blue Beard)

Writer: Jean Painlevé

Starring: Jean Painlevé, Geneviève Hamon, Antonin Artaud, Clairval, Ben Danou, Le Brun

Year: 2007

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: France


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