“Science Is Fiction”: Jean Painlevé’s mesmerizing “scientific-poetic cinema”

By on June 4, 2015

French biologist/filmmaker Jean Painlevé — who was also the “chief ant handler” on Luis Buñuel’s film Un Chien Andalou — made mesmerizing science and nature films, often focusing on what what was happening beneath the surface of the sea, creating a kind of “scientific-poetic cinema” that seems to have been inspired by his contemporaries in the Surrealist movement.

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Painlevé, born in 1902, was not, by his own estimation, well-liked by his classmates, particularly in high school, and he spent a lot of time skipping classes to go to the zoo, Jardin des Plantes, where he became friendly with the caretakers who allowed him to help in their daily feeding of the animals. He also regularly escaped to the Left Bank’s Saint-Michel theater, where he enjoyed the films of Mack Sennett, Georges Méliès, and Émile Cohl. After graduating, he’d first embraced and then abandoned the idea of studying mathematics (his father had been a mathematician and would also twice become the prime minister of France), but he found no mystery in it. His father, by the way, in 1915, under the auspices of the Ministre de l’Instruction Publicque et des Inventions, had set up a commission that was to examine the possibilities of using film in teaching.

He began turning elsewhere in his undergraduate studies, eventually entering the École Polytechnique to study medicine — until he had a disagreement with a physician instructor about what he perceived to be the man’s cruel treatment of a patient who had hydrocephalus — and then, once again, changing the focus of his undergrad studies from medicine to biology, in order for him to continue to study animals, enrolling in biology and physics courses at the Laboratoire d’Anatomie et d’Histologie Comparée at the Sorbonne, in 1921. It was at school that he met his lifelong companion, Geneviève Hamon.

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Like his father, though, Painlevé also got caught up in the spirited political climate of the day, and along with Georges Altman and others, in 1918, he created a club for the “Socialist Revolutionary Students,” an anarchist organization established that had established in the previous century. Painlevé himself handed out pamphlets in the streets, but within a few years, he began to lean towards communism, and joined an established union of “Communist Students.”

In April of 1925, his father, Paul Painlevé, became prime minister for a second time after the sitting prime minister of France, Édouard Herriot, was forced to resign over a financial crisis that arose from the continuing devaluation of the franc note. He had been prime minister once before, briefly — and had served a number of other positions, chiefly as Minister of War — but he faced the same financial problems and was forced to resign after just a few months.

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With all of this going on in his father’s world, it’s no wonder that Jean Painlevé’s interests probably moved further away from radical politics, and began expanded further into the areas of biology, and, in particular, he also began to have a burgeoning interest in filmmaking, and sought to create ways to express his love for both. His story, in some ways, reminds us of an earlier Night Flight post, about Polish-Russian historian/filmmaker Ladisla Starewicz, who we told you about here, who journeyed through the portals of science-into-filmmaking himself.

Since we’re also talking about 1920’s France, Painlevé also had some minor participation in the Surrealist art/political movement, although he was not actually a member of the Surrealists, and they didn’t consider him as such. He had, however, collaborate on the journal Surréalisme which was overseen by his friend Ivan Goll (they only put out one issue), in 1924, publishing an article of his entitled “Exemple de surréalisme : le cinéma.”

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In the article — which could be considered a declaration of principles — Painlevé stressed that the cinema should focus on the “recording of reality,” but he considered that some of the camera techniques that were coming into use at the time — slow-motion, accelerated speed and blurred images — could, like the art movement, also create “a surrealist esthetic.” This way of thinking planted a seed early on in the way he would combine the documentary filmmaking techniques used in science and nature photography, with the more surreal aspects being expressed by some of his more art-minded Surrealist contemporaries.

In 1925, Painlevé’ submitted a pseudo-scientific, nonsensical and entirely Surrealist text, which he titled “Neo-zoological Drama,” to the l’Académie des Sciences. One of his first film experiences then comes in 1926, when Painlevé assists in the filming of six sequences which are then projected on a background of white clouds at the representation of the play “Methuselah” that his friend Ivan Goll was staging, and that same year, he assisted the Sorbonne’s anatomy lab to film something used in a presentation.

In 1927, Painlevé finally began making his own short films when he directed L’œuf d’épinoche : de la fécondation à l’éclosion .. aka The Stickleback’s Egg, which he had made to accompany another correspondence with l’Académie des Sciences, for the purposes of getting hired by them to make films. He succeeded and remained with them until the end of his life.

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He often scored the avant-garde music and background sounds for his films himself, and he had quite a talent for it too, which is apparent in some of his better films, such as in Les Oursins, in which he considered musically to be an homage to the work of composer Edgard Varèse. Not only that, but he invented many of the contraptions he used to capture his mesmerizing images, especially for the films which took place below the surface of the sea, and one of those included a custom-designed waterproof box, fitted with a glass plate, which enabled his camera’s lens to get as close as possible to all of the underwater action. He even lived with the aquariums in his own home, and is said to have preferred the company of his tiny aquatic friends to most people he met.

Painlevé did have some additional connections to Surrealist filmmakers throughout the rest of the 1920s, including acting as the “chief ant handler” on Luis Buñuel’s film Un Chien Andalou (1928), a film that he loved. Considering this particular job he must have also meant he into regular contact with the fascinating Salvador Dalí, who kind of had a thing about ants, we’re sure that the two of them probably hit if off. Over the remainder of his career, his lyrical and instructive animal-behavior films were much admired by his contemporaries such as Buñuel, Antonin Artaud, and Jean Vigo. He was also a fan of the artist Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique, a Dadaist post-Cubist art film from years earlier. André Raymond’s time-lapse photography was also a big influence.

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The French filmmaker-scientist-inventor ended up making make than two hundred science and nature films, lensing subjects ranging from astronomy to pigeons to, most famously, he had a particular fondness to making films about small marine animals: shrimps, octopus, hermit crabs, sea horses, sea urchins and assorted shellfish. Painlevé single-handedly established a unique kind of cinema, the “scientific-poetic cinema,” which is one reason why they remain so fascinating even today. His films were praised by scientists and artists alike, even painters like Marc Chagall who said that Painlevé’s films inspired him with their “unrivaled visual richness.” In 1930, he co-founded L’Institut du Cinema Scientifique.

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In 2009, the Criterion Collection released a three-disc collection of some of his best films, Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé, which also includes the French television series Jean Painlevé Through His Films, as well as inclusions like by the New Jersey-based rock band Yo La Tengo’s eight-film score The Sounds of Science, and an essay by film scholar Scott MacDonald.

Here’s an excerpt from it:

Painlevé died in 1989, at the age of eighty-six, having produced more than two hundred films, countless photographs, and a considerable body of writing.

Throughout his remarkable career, Painlevé’s primary commitment was to support the creation of first-rate nature films and the development of popular audiences for these and other forms of cinema that might function to inform and energize the public. Soon after World War II, Painlevé became president of the French Federation of Ciné-Clubs, and he continued to promote the use of cinema as a way of popularizing science through his work with the Institute of Scientific Cinema, which he had founded in 1930, and by helping to establish the International Association of Science Films, which held conferences where science films from around the world were screened.

He was also one of the first nature filmmakers to work with television, and in time would experiment with new video techniques. While for Disney the nature film was one small part in the construction of an empire, for Painlevé filmmaking was an intensely personal and life-defining means of democratizing scientific research and sharing information and ideas about our remarkably complex, sometimes terrifying, but always wondrous planet.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.