Painleve's scientific surrealism

John Conomos

Jean Painlevé with underwater camera, 1935

Jean Painlevé with underwater camera, 1935

As a central part of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition Liquid Sea, 6 of Jean Painlevé’s enchanting surreal films from the 1920s to the 70s, were screened at The Studio, Sydney Opera House. The screenings were introduced by Brigitte Berg, the Director of the Painlevé archive at Les Documents Cinematographiques, Paris. Her informative and stimulating lecture shed invaluable light on Painlevé’s art and life. All of us who regard him as one of the bewitching marvels of surrealist cinema are indebted to Berg’s dedication to keeping Painlevé’s unprecedented poetic and acategorical films, photographs and documents (including broadcasts) alive for appreciative generations of art lovers, cinephiles and scientists.

For me these screenings were a watershed viewing experience. The multifaceted and quirky combination of surrealism, science and cinema that distinctively characterises this artist’s magical oeuvre has so far eluded all existing film canons. Who was Painlevé and what of his rarely known and seen films?

Born in 1902, Jean Painlevé was the son of a distinguished mathematician and French Minister of War. Originally trained as a biologist, he became interested in films in the 20s. In 1924 he became a founding member of the French Surrealist movement. Painlevé’s absorbing marine study films were surreal hybrids: research works about aquatic life for scientists; and films that popularised science for a lay audience. It’s the latter that are usually celebrated.

Painlevé was a friend of Luis Bunuel (he almost fainted when Painlevé showed him a real eye surgery film!), Antonin Artaud and Jean Vigo. He was more than a marine biologist fascinated with the strange balletic movements of a seahorse (The Seahorse, 1934), the erotic life of an octopus (The Love Life of the Octopus, 1965), or the allegorical Nazi-like attributes of a vampire bat (The Vampire, 1939-45). He was a tireless promoter of cinema. Arguably, his films were a vital precursor to the multimedia creativity of the 1960s and beyond. In the 1970s he was working on the creative and technical possibilities of the video self-portrait.

Painlevé was a political activist who, in the 1930s, became interested in supporting popular democracy and popular science. During the French occupation and the following decade, he fought for French cinema’s independence and the documentary form.

As a surrealist, Painlevé’s quirky sensibility is immediately recognisable in its idiosyncratic interplay between science and surrealism. Possessing a remarkable eye for life’s eerie curiosities, Painlevé’s cinematic art pivots on the premise that science is fiction. As a pioneer of underwater filmmaking, he introduces us to the wonderfully weird creatures and their rituals that comprise underwater life—a world extended to our television screens in the 1950s and 60s, by Jacques Cousteau. Our ceaseless anthropomorphic amazement at Painlevé’s uncanny films have much to say about our dreams and passions.

Irrespective of their subjects, his films also force us to reconsider our devotion to categorical thinking. Noted for their unsettling amalgam of droll clinical matter-of-factness, playful irony and surreal perversity, Painlevé’s exquisitely photographed and lit films generate wonder and unease. They also innovatively embrace art and science, cinema and documentary, educational function and surreal spectacle. As a surrealist poet of the nature film, Painlevé, is in a class of his own. His films bring to mind Bunuel’s definition of cinema as that marvelous white eyelid screen reflecting its own light to blow up the world.

One of the many inventive qualities of Painlevé’s cinema was his unpredictable use of music such as hot jazz (Duke Ellington) in The Vampire; avant garde music (Darius Milhaud) in perhaps his most famous film of all, The Seahorse; and electronic music (Pierre Henry) for his 1960s octopus film. Painlevé’s ear for marrying unusual sounds to his images is distinctive in French cinema. It was Painlevé who introduced the film composer Maurice Jaubert to Jean Vigo. My first viewing of The Vampire with its combination of Ellington, the hideous bat and its unsuspecting victim was an unsettling imagistic and sonic encounter that remained with me for years. Only in film noir do we find such an engagingly resourceful use of jazz in the cinema.

A welcome surprise at the screening was the 1938 satirical animation Blue Beard, with its vivid and dramatic use of red, blue, yellow and brown and its strange clay figures (fashioned by sculptor Rene Bertrand and his 3 children) forming a hallucinatory fairytale film of explosive lyricism with an operatically inflected soundtrack (Maurice Jaubert and Jean-Vincent Brechignac). This is a film that deliberately seeks to unsettle our most basic assumptions about reality. An extraordinary achievement.

For too long Jean Painlevé’s surreal eclecticism has been paid lip service in certain quarters of film history and theory. Curator Rachel Kent and the MCA are to be congratulated for bringing these films of “accidental beauty” (Andre Bazin) to a wider viewing public. Painlevé’s legacy is a singularly marvelous one: zoological documents that double as provocative cine-poems of unparalleled chance, humour, lyricism and unsettling beauty. A cinema to engulf you with its delirious magic.

A life in film: The extraordinary world of Jean Painlevé, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, March 14, part of Liquid Sea, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, March 14-June 8

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 17

© John Potts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003
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