Idiosyncratic French filmmaker Jean Painlevé was a poet in celluloid and a pseudo-scientist in brine. With friends such as Jean Vigo, LuíÂs Buí±uel (indeed Painlevé was chief ant handler in Dali/Buí±uel’s Un Chien Andalou), Eistenstein, Edgar Varese, George Franju (Painlevé co-wrote Le Sang Des BíÂªtes) and Alexander Calder to name but a few, Painlevé has come to be regarded as an avant-garde filmmaker.
By the 1920s science and film were already bedfellows. There had been antecedents – Marey, Commandon, Doyen – and by the time Painlevé started shooting equipment was already quite sophisticated; yet often science films were didactic, seldom were they poetic. Being the anarchist that he was, Painlevé took the rigid, musty nature of scientific filmmaking as a cue to do the exact opposite and deliver material that really engaged people with the subject. A true auteur, he worked semi-autonomously in his own lab, replete with customised equipment. Although his films are often structurally quite formal and relatively straightforward, they seemed so strange in the context of orthodox science film that their reputation as ‘avant-garde’ was sealed.
Science is Fiction collects eleven short films made by Painlevé between 1927 and 1979, with subjects ranging from liquid crystals to the mating rituals of various marine animals and, in collage form, the life of a vampire bat (the only airborne creature recorded here). Every single one of these films is a delight and I salute the BFI and the team that put it together.
The son of a mathematician/politician, indeed Prime Minister, Painlevé emerged from a haut-bourgeois background. As a youth he was a keen photographer with an interest in surrealist and dadaist art. By his early twenties he had flirted with film, working as an actor and producer on minor self-financed short films. He was also partly responsible for the publication of Surréalisme, a magazine dedicated to… you guessed it. It folded after one issue. Simultaneously, Painlevé was busy disobeying father, flunking out of mathematics and opting for marine biology, spending his days wading in the coastline of Brittany. During this period he met his wife and collaborative partner GeneviíÂ¨ve Hamon. It wasn’t until 1927, when Painlevé was in his mid-twenties, that he started to take the camera out wading with him. Over the course of three years he made six short documentary films all dealing with molluscs or crustaceans. By the time of his death in 1989 he’d authored in excess of 200 films.
Despite his association with Breton’s movement, Painlevé was not a surrealist filmmaker by any means. He did, however, share the surrealists’ interest in the weirdness of procreation and psycho-sexual stimulation. Out of the eleven films collected here, four depict submarine mating rituals and birth. These are the most captivating of the selection, and not only do they reveal Painlevé’s preoccupation with animal reproduction but they also demonstrate a propensity for eroticism in their technical realisation.
In the opening shots of Love Life of an Octopus (1965), an octopus crawls across mud flats at low tide, its large humanoid eye blinking with a furtive, criminal shyness… it squeezes itself under a rock and nests there until the tide has risen. ‘Créature horrifique’, says the voiceover in mock disdain. Painlevé then presents us with a kaleidoscopic peep-show of octopi coitus, pregnancy, birth and foetal development. The lighting is soft-focus, the location intimate.
The molluscs are subjected to pornographic macroscopic close-up photography exposing labial, clitoral fronds, protusions and sensuous pink umbilicae; Wharton jelly smears; the curlicues and whorls of tentacular mating rituals; the synaesthetic mood pulsing of octopi, a special arm inserted into an orifice… It is reminiscent of an orgasmatron moment in Barbarella or an expanded cinema light show; with jerkier movement and fast editing it could even be Brakhage-esque forensic footage….
It is strange indeed, the love life of an octopus, but it is no stranger than our own sexual corporeality, sexual rituals, reproduction processes and the mysteries of our internal organs. We see other creatures copulate too in other Painlevé films but this scene in this two-years-in-the-making, forty-two-year-old sublime tour de force is particularly devastating and to me exemplifies Painlevé’s erotic poetic quality.
There is something undoubtedly sensuous about submersion in fluid. In an essay from 1935, ‘Feet In The Water’, Painlevé discusses wading, its instinctive, sensual pleasure and thwarted desire: ‘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….’ It is possible, then, if you have a filthy mind like me, to see direct parallels with filmic eroticism in Painlevé’s films; if nothing else he gets very intimate with the molluscs.
Painlevé’s films are noted for their soundtracks and Love Life of an Octopus derives an essential part of its propulsion from the squelching macabre that is Pierre Henri’s gorgeous composition. Like a foetus in amniotic fluid, that other homme-grenouille Jacques Cousteau liked to listen to the mysterious, muffled, globular vibrations of hydrophonic recordings… Painlevé wasn’t averse to these sounds but generally chose music to accompany his films. It is largely this juxtaposition that gives his work its unique texture. Jazz, chamber music, musique concríÂ¨te and other harmless noises provide ironic counterpoint to imagery that’s often as arcane.
Painlevé’s Parisian studio, a landlocked Nautilus… Sat amongst his aquaria in the heart of Paris, tinkering with exotic life-forms, Painlevé was, like many of the singular breed of people who keep subaquatic pets, a sado-masochist who enjoyed the tragic non-reciprocity of the relationship. A relationship wrapped in morbidity, since to have a more tactile rapport with the creature one would have to compromise its life. They cannot be in our world without life support: tanks with thermostatic regulators, water-treatment chemicals and filters. As we are constantly reminded of the fragility of their existence there is something inherently melancholy about these kinds of pets. Painlevé understood this since he experienced the agony in reverse, only able to exist in their world with life support too. To me this mutual empathy is quite evident, contrary to the critics who claim that Painlevé depicted the miscellaneous animals as exotic, outlandish aliens.
I look at the slip-case cover of the DVD – Painlevé kitted out as an aquanaut, ready to descend, respirators on his back, fat tube attached to a face-mask with shatter-proof glass, a huge underwater camera like a Jules Verne relic from the previous century strapped to his chest, all set for filming amoebic bodies and their undulations in brine, and it is Painlevé who looks far more like an alien species than any of the creatures I gawped at in his films of the marvellous.
Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé features an alternative soundtrack by Yo La Tengo. The band will perform their soundtrack live to a selection of the films at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 9 September at 7.30pm.