Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé

"Excellent"

Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé Review


When people ask me what a Jean Painlevé film looks like, I tell them to imagine a cross between Jacques Cousteau and David Lynch.

That usually works.

Painlevé, 1902-1989, was not only a prolific filmmaker but also a scientist, animator, actor, translator, anarchist, racecar driver, theorist, and surrealist. His films inhabit this strange realm between DIY home filmmaking and honest scientific exploration. They'd be considered "nature documentaries" like you see on the Discovery Channel if it weren't for the fact that the soundtracks veer wildly from jazz to avant-garde music and the animal activity on-screen isn't so much explained as it is "poetically described." When first screened, scientists were enraged by Painlevé's films, but his shorts quickly found a cult audience with artists.

The 23 films in Criterion's Science Is Fiction collection highlight many of Painlevé's more enduring works like Le Vampire (1945) aka The Vampire (about vampire bats amongst others), L'Hippocampe (1934) aka The Sea Horse, L'½uf d'épinoche: de la fécondation à l'éclosion (1927) aka Stickelback Eggs, and Amours de la pieuvre aka Love life of the Octopus (with a soundtrack by electronic music pioneer Pierre Henry). Largely filmed in black and white, most of Painlevé's films consist of footage of animals (frequently shot in extreme close-up) going about their daily routines, and almost all have raucous or discordant soundtracks and poetic narration in French.

Filmmaking for Painlevé was an arduous affair: His films were expensive, were filmed in difficult locations (or in his well-stocked laboratory), and required many man-hours. Making L'Hippocampe was particularly difficult and Painlevé had to design an electric shock apparatus to keep himself awake (after days of not sleeping) during the filming of a seahorse giving birth. In many ways, Painlevé was the James Cameron of his time -- inventing new, or improving upon on existing, technology to capture the images he needed to capture. The real difference is that Painlevé never made much money as a filmmaker.

Outside of scientific investigation, Painlevé's films also highlight his political stances. Le Vampire, which includes footage of a Brazilian vampire bat sucking the blood from the nose of a guinea pig to the tune of Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy," is his response to the encroaching threat of Nazism and was quite scandalous. His film Assassins d'eau douce (1947) aka Freshwater Assassins pushed even further, comparing human activity with macro shots of fresh-water invertebrates devouring prey to spastic jazz and drum solos.

Seen outside of their scientific presentations, Jean Painlevé's films could very well be viewed as surrealist freak-outs for the midnight movie crowd or stunning art films for those on the hunt for beautiful, if enigmatic, images.



Facts and Figures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Cast & Crew

Director: Jean Painlevé

Producer: Jean Painlevé

Contactmusic


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