Jean Painlevé: Science and Fiction


Jean Painlevé is among the mysterious, singular, scarcely known figures hidden in the deep pockets of film history. But, once upon a time, he was reasonably famous in Europe – to the extent of hosting a UK television programme – for independently made shorts with titles like The Love Life of the Octopus, How Some Jellyfish are Born, Sea Urchins, and The Vampire.

Painlevé was a pioneer of the science film, a genre he practised in complete freedom, and always with an eye on the newest photographic technologies. Indeed, Painlevé is comparable to Jean Rouch in that, sheltered by official, non-film-based institutions and disciplines – marine biology for the one, anthropology/ethnography for the other – he was left alone, able to work beyond conventions and restrictions.

His wild, inventive, richly cinematic portraits of deep-sea creatures and other phenomena filmable with microscopic, slow-motion cameras show his immersion in anarchist and surrealist concerns – although, an individualist to the end, he shunned any group allegiance.

In 2007, the British Film Institute released the two-disc set Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé. This marvellous collection of Painlevé’s work from 1927 to 1978 (he died in 1989), with its interplay of often miraculous images, voice-over, and an eclectic music selection (also included is a modern accompaniment by Yo La Tengo) will have some contemporary viewers picturing a subterranean Chris Marker – less political, perhaps, but even more poetic.

In the superb accompanying booklet, Brigitte Berg underlines Painlevé’s “commitment to humanity through the animalistic”. The frequent – often droll – comparisons between human and non-human behaviour in his films have a savage, cruel edge reminiscent of the philosophy of Georges Bataille. The entire DVD set is a treat.


© Adrian Martin August 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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