Science is Fiction: The films of Jean Painlevé Avaunt considers the pioneering life of one of France’s most underrated – and most unclassifiable – filmmakers, Jean Painlevé

“Wading around in water up to your ankles or navel, day and night, in all kinds of weather, even in areas where one is sure to find nothing, digging about everywhere for algae or octopus, getting hypnotised by a sinister pond where everything seems to promise marvels although nothing lives there. This is the ecstasy of any addict….”

– Jean Painlevé, Feet in the Water, 1935

The films of Jean Painlevé – produced from 1927 until his death in 1989 at the age of 86 – are difficult to categorise. Having come to filmmaking through his contact with the Surrealists while studying Biology at the Sorbonne (befriending, among others, Antonin Artaud, Sergei Eistenstein and Alexander Calder), the short works by the French photographer and filmmaker – on seahorses, shrimp and the love lives of octopuses – are not typically surreal, or even necessarily art, and yet, so infused with the filmmaker’s child-like curiosity for life beneath the waves, they also defy simple classification as documentaries.

Excerpt from The Love Life of the Octopus (1967)

Painlevé’s films were not only groundbreaking technologically – making full use of slow-motion and accelerated speed – but brought a poetry and even eroticism to otherwise dry, scientific films of the time. Like the iconic French filmmakers of the mid-20th century, such as Luis Buñuel (for whom Painlevé worked as ‘chief ant handler’ on Un Chien Andalou) and Jean-Luc Godard (to whom he lent the hands-free camera harness), Painlevé, working semi-autonomously in his Parisian lab, was a true auteur. And though his films – factual and informative documentaries – are not as avant-garde as the work of his milieu, Painlevé found a way to marry the two – in his own words, “science is fiction”.

As the first UK retrospective of Painlevé’s work opens at the IKON gallery in Birmingham, Avaunt spoke to Marie Jager, the founder of the Archives Jean Painlevé, about how Painlevé discovered filmmaking in his late 20s, his technical innovations and his considerable influence on French cinema.

How did Painlevé first become interested in the natural world?
During his childhood Painlevé spent a lot of time in Brittany, discovering the wildlife on the beach and visiting the aquarium. Then as a student, having first studied medicine, he specialised in biology and began examining the animals with a microscope. This was his first experience of sea life.

Jean Painlevé, film still from The Seahorse
Jean Painlevé, film still from The Seahorse, 1934 © Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris. Image courtesy of Archives Jean Painleve, Paris.

How did he then move to filmmaking?
Many of the Surrealist artists, photographers and writers also studied biology – Buñuel, for example, studied Natural History. Having met and socialised with these people in Parisian bars in the 20’s, contributing to the movement’s magazine, Surrealism, in 1924, he then met a cameraman and filmmaker and that initiated his attraction to cinema. During his studies he set up a studio near Brittany in the early 20s and, as he was technically orientated, he customised his cameras to be able to capture these small animals.

How would you characterise Painlevé’s approach to filmmaking?
It’s non-artistic, there’s not a lot of idealisation, but what’s important is the idea of the document, documenting something that was real and filmed in a non-intrusive way, there’s nothing stylised.

There is a bit of eccentricity in his work. It’s part scientific, rigorous description of the phenomenon we see on the screen, but it’s also very literary and humorous. He was trying to reach the widest audience he could – he didn’t want to bore people – so used music and text and really captivating images to convey a scientific understanding of the animals.

Jean Painlevé, Crab Claw
Jean Painlevé, Crab Claw, 1928 © Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris. Image courtesy of Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris.

How did his interactions with the surrealists influence his work?
Some elements came from the Surrealists or from literature that the Surrealists approved of – in 1928 he made a film that had a human skull next to an octopus, for example. And there are also some references in the type of animals he chose: lobster, seahorse, octopus – they were animals that also inspired the Surrealists.

There’s an amazing scene in The Seahorse where Painlevé slows down the heartbeat of a young seahorse to demonstrate how its heart beats. How innovative was he on a technical level?
There were scientists at the turn of the century like Étienne-Jules Marey or Jean Comandon who had used microcinema and film as part of their experiments. Painlevé used the same equipment as these pioneers, as well as the newer equipment that became available over his long career which he would then customise – giving his camera the magnification of 50,000 times to shoot a waterflea, for example.

The Seahorse (1934)

What influence has Painlevé and his work had?
The significance of an exhibition at IKON is to ensure Painlevé’s legacy with younger generations. His interest in sea life is so peculiar – not many filmmakers have addressed this apart from Jacques Cousteau, who Painlevé admired.

As a filmmaker, Painlevé was not sectarian. Shortly after the war he became the president of the French Federation of Ciné-Club. He was hoping for better quality cinema, more interesting filmmakers, across all domains. So I think he was very influential on the French New Wave – through his work with the Ciné-Club, playing a repertoire of films and educating people in film language – but filmmakers also will refer to Painlevé even if they produce work that doesn’t look like what Painlevé was doing.


Jean Painlevé runs at the IKON Gallery, 1 Oozells Square, Birmingham, until 4th June.

Films courtesy Archives Jean Painleve, Paris.

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