Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Patrick Friel

The Love Life of the Octopus

The Love Life of the Octopus

Directed by Jean Painlevé; 3-disc DVD, Color and B&W, 315 mins. A Criterion Collection release, distributed by Image Entertainment.

Open on a medium shot of an octopus moving against a black background. Cut to one scuttling on a sea floor. Next our star is on a window ledge—apparently having squeezed through the small crack made by the barely-opened window—then plopping off. An octopus is shown crawling over the face of a very realistic doll meant to be a young sleeping child. Cut to the creature now in the crook of a tree trunk. An underwater shot of a menacing looking octopus atop a human skull is, finally, followed by a brief series of long shots of the animal seen in shallow tidal pools.

This opening sequence of Jean Painlevé’s 1927 film The Octopus —his first “popular” film for a general audience—sets the direction for the remainder of his career: a deft and often witty combination of the fanciful and the factual. Painlevé was a maker of science films that constantly pushed against that label. The science was there—he prided himself on that—but he also recognized that he couldn’t interest the public with dry facts and animal anatomy lessons alone. It’s easy to see his almost childlike wonder at the creatures he filmed and part of his aim was to instill the same enchantment and curiosity in filmgoers.

From the start, he incorporated humor into his work—both wry, understated narrative comments (“Shrimping is the most beautiful and most enviable of sports”) and absurd sight gags and jokes (a crustacean “conductor” directing with its antennae a dancing feather star). He was also fond of making analogies between his underwater subjects and examples from the everyday life of his audience. Most frequent was his use of anthropomorphizing: almost everything he saw had some human parallel, from the “labor pains” of the male seahorse, to the courtship rituals of the octopus, to the “vanity” of the hyas. Painlevé believed that science should be instructive, but it should also be something people can enjoy and relate to.

Over the course of fifty-plus years, Painlevé would complete more than 200 films—many of them his “popular” science films, but also films specifically for the scientific community. Given this longevity and prolific output, it’s surprising that he wasn’t better known outside of France—but only mildly surprising. Setting aside Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough, how many science or nature filmmakers can most people name? Even cinephiles and documentary specialists would be hard pressed to come up with even a short list. Now, Painlevé would likely be at the top, but twenty years ago he might not have even made a list.

A quick informal survey shows that Erik Barnouw’s Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (1974/revised 1983) and Paul Rotha’sDocumentary Film (1935/revised 1952) make only brief references to Painlevé, while Lewis Jacobs’s The Documentary Tradition: From Nanook to Woodstock (1971) does not mention him at all. He is also all but missing from histories on French cinema and experimental film. The most extensive mention found is in Roger Manvell’s Experiment in the Film (1949) and, there, only in John Maddison’s chapter on scientific filmmaking.

Since his death in 1989, though, there has been an upsurge in interest in Painlevé’s work. The first retrospective of his films in the U.S. was at the Exploratorium in San Francisco in 1991 and programs of his shorts have played at various venues and festivals since. In 2001 the San Francisco International Film Festival commissioned the experimental rock band Yo La Tengo to create a new score for eight of Painlevé’s films. The informative and handsomely produced book Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé, edited by Andy Masaki Bellows and Marina McDougall, with Brigitte Berg, was published in 2000. Critical and scholarly attention to Painlevé has also increased, partly due to a growing general interest in science filmmaking.

And now there is a U.S. release of a small selection of Painlevé’s films on DVD: Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé. Included are sixteen of his “popular” films; two of his science research films; four science films he produced but did not direct; and the 1938 color animation Bluebeard, which he produced. Also in the three-disc set is a 1988 French television documentary on Painlevé and an excellent introductory essay by film scholar Scott MacDonald. Viewers also have the option of watching eight of the films with Yo La Tengo’s score. This nicely produced set from Criterion should further the interest in Painlevé and his films.

It is, of course, Painlevé’s own films that shine here. One wishes that the three-hour documentary (which takes up all of the third disc) had been dropped in favor of another dozen of Painlevé’s films. It’s a fine look at the man, but the salient information can be found in MacDonald’s essay and Bellows and McDougall’s book. Perhaps this is just greedy, but once one delves in to Painlevé’s magical explorations it seems justified.

Much attention has been paid to Painlevé’s wit and humor (at the beginning of Shrimp Stories a young boy excitedly shows off a shrimp he just caught to his mother, who turns around to reveal herself to be a Groucho Marx impersonator) and his use of anthropomorphosis. But the two related aspects of his films, which continue to give them a power and fascination today, are their strong basis in science and their sheer beauty.

Painlevé moved fluidly between the worlds of biology and art, and this ability to keep one foot in each is reflected in his films. He was a serious scientist who advocated strongly for the use of cinema in scientific investigation. He was also immersed in the cultural life of Paris in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. Antonin Artaud appeared in his 1927 film Mathusalem ; he introduced composer Maurice Jaubert and actor Michel Simon to Jean Vigo, with whom he was a close friend; he loaned cameras to Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard for Land without Bread and Breathlessrespectively; he wrote the narration for Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts.

Painlevé also moved in the Dada and Surrealist circles but if part of their aim was to upend complacency and societal and artistic norms through unexpected juxtapositions and generally “making strange” the world around them, then Painlevé demonstrated that automatic writing and the dream paintings of Dali and de Chirico were unnecessary—all one really needed to do was gaze carefully enough at the natural world to find ample examples of the unexpected, the strange, the shocking, and the mysterious (cannibal shrimp, the male seahorse giving birth, a polyamorous chain of five hermaphroditic acera mollusks mating).

Painlevé’s genius was that he recognized the presence of the miraculous in the ordinary and used this insight as the basis of his fusion of the scientific with the esthetic. Or, more accurately, he gave each free rein and allowed them to intermingle and coexist. He found beauty and grace in the most unlikely creatures and violence and horror in the most majestic and serene. In Acera, or The Witches’ Dance (1972) the seemingly unremarkable mollusk becomes a remarkably beautiful one as it swims using a large mantel of flesh—it transforms into a miniature ballerina. InShrimp Stories (1964) the tail of the unappealing crustacean rivals the lovely patterning of a peacock’s tail when seen in extreme close-up. Alternately, the larvae of the stately looking dragonfly are shown to be vicious and rapacious hunters in Freshwater Assassins (1947). And in Sea Urchins (1954), tiny calciferous organs—pedicillaria, which end in jawlike structures—would seem at home in a Hieronymus Bosch painting or in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Painlevé’s merging of science and visual poetry is most obvious in his microcinematography. Seen greatly magnified, the spines of the sea urchin take on an architectural elegance; the coloration and designs on the brittle star become tiny mandalas; microscopic diatoms look like crystalline structures.

Throughout almost all of the films, a central theme for Painlevé is the mutability of life—the transformational occurrences that happen all around us. Sometimes this is simply surface or cosmetic change—the acera mollusk suddenly becoming a swirling wonder or the color changes of the octopus—but frequently Painlevé’s attention is focused on the details of reproduction and the development of the eggs, embryos, and larvae of the animals he is filming. Here again he puts his microcinematography skills to stunning use. In extreme close-up, the various stages of growth take on a monumental aspect, belying any actual size. The division of cells, the pumping action of miniature hearts, the movement of embryonic fluid—all take on a quality of abstraction. In How Some Jellyfish Are Born (1960), the jellyfish polyps almost resemble organic Alexander Calder mobiles.

By exploring basic facts of existence in all their strange and diverse expressions, Painlevé finds a universal commonality that any audience can understand. Life finds a way. His films shine the light on it. His science provides the mystery; his artistry provides the magic.

To buy Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé, click here.

Patrick Friel was Program Director at Chicago Filmmakers for eleven years (1996-2007) and has been the Festival Director and Programmer of the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival (run by Chicago Filmmakers) since 2001. He is the founder of the independent alternative film screening series White Light Cinema and has presented freelance programs at many venues and festivals.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4