Nature documentarian Jean Painlevé was a filmmaker possessed of a rare combination of talents: an artist’s agile grasp of the camera and a scientist’s gift for observation and analysis. This blend of skills is on fine display in Science is Fiction, a collection of Painleve’s popular nature films, as well as his early silent works, research films and a rare piece of animated cinema. The director’s short films are enthusiastic, even effusive, about all of his often humble subjects, while still retaining a sense of objective distance in relating to audiences the often extraordinary lives of these creatures.
This peculiar blend of affection and detachment is particularly on display in Shrimp Stories, which plays like a love letter to a creature whose name is synonymous with helplessness. Painlevés meticulously crafted, meditative and reverent treatment of the daily lives of these tiny crustaceans is framed by his ruminations on their helplessness and cloyingly close views of the animal’s daily existence. From the first scenes of shrimp being scooped up in nets by beachgoers to the closing shots of a recently molted shrimp being torn apart and eaten by it’s fellows, Shrimp Stories, like many of the films collected in Science is Fiction, explores both the beauty and cruelty of survival.
Ultimately, this collection of frequently gorgeous and often savage explorations of the life cycles of many animals is a meditation on the fragility of existence and the fleeting nature of all life. The respect Painlevé accords the subjects of Shrimp Stories is characteristic of the works collected in Science is Fiction, which masterfully anthropomorphize their subjects. From octopus and seahorse to snail and water beetle larvae, the creatures in Painlevé films are seen as comical or evil, lazy or deceptive.
Painlevé has a predilection towards creatures that challenge our expectations of life – vampire bats and hermaphroditic jellyfish are on display, along with asexual mollusks and child bearing seahorse fathers. In presenting the strangest of creatures as having the most human of traits, Painlevé challenges notions of sex, gender and what it takes to create life.
The films presented in this collection seem also to revel in dashing our expectations of the creatures they portray, as when a caddisfly larva, seeking shelter for its vulnerable body, turns out to be as bloodthirsty a predator as one could hope to encounter. Painlevé never shies away from the violence of the natural world, but rather accepts it as a consequence of all life and embraces its intrinsic entertainment value, calling battles between water beetle larvae as if he was sitting at ringside during a heavyweight bout.
Magnification plays a key role in almost all of Painleve’s works, bringing the most intimate details of his subjects into stark focus. These static, highly contrasted magnifications are among the best examples of Painleve’s surrealist aesthetic, interrupting as they do the natural dynamism of the motion picture, forcing the audience to simultaneously confront the alien nature of the animals which surround us while marveling at their intricacy and beauty. The result is a series of dreamlike films whose striking images leave modern day CGI extravaganzas seeming pale in comparison.
The use of extreme close up transcends filmic technique in Painleve’s films, representing in many ways the larger theme of his body of work. In choosing his subjects, Painlevé was a connoseuir of the overlooked, most interested in closely following the lives of animals that most of us never deign to notice.
The subjects of the films collected in Science is Fiction tend towards the humble, but are explored in great detail and with the most diligent care, demonstrating an extraordinary devotion to depicting the lives of a wide variety of creatures that would ordinarily escape our notice. From the life cycle of an animal most widely known as a dinner party snack to the constant, desperate struggles for existence that are occurring in every pond and swamp, no aspect of the lives of Painlevés subjects is taken for granted.
Painlevé’s filmic style is at its most striking in works like How Some Jellyfish Are Born and L’hippocampe, whose stark monochrome renders the sea a starry nightscape. He also has a phenomenal understanding of the grace and beauty of nature’s most minute motions in works like liquid crystals, a kaleidoscopic art house rendering of the transformation of matter from one state to another.
Often accompanied by big band and jazz music, the films of Science is Fiction reflect Painlevés ability to find dance in nature and relate to audiences the elegance of everyday animals. The varying styles of the works reflect the astounding diversity of life and matter, ranging from meditative monochrome fantasies that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cocteau retrospective to surrealist inspired, almost hallucinatory ballets of movement and color.
Less successful, even for fans, are the collections examples of Painlevés earliest silent works and research films. While these pieces are no doubt historically important for the gaze they offer into the directors development as a filmmaker, they mostly travel between the realms of the simply boring in the case of The Octopus to the distinctly hard to watch Experimental Treatment for Hemmhorage in a Dog.
Also included are the four films Painlevé directed for the opening of the Palais de la Découverte in Paris in 1937. While a bit out of his wheelhouse, these films demonstrate the director obviously enjoying himself, given the opportunity not only to explore population control in animals but also subjects like physics and space travel and speculative science, which he tackles with relish.
Science is Fiction is replete with special features, from a lengthy and well done if occasionally rambling documentary series featuring archival footage and interviews with Painlevé himself to a slim booklet detailing the filmmakers life and work. Also included are interviews with Yo La Tengo, whose Painlevé inspired album The Sounds of The Sounds of Science provides a contemporary score to eight of the films presented here. But the real attraction lies in rediscovering the work of a master filmmaker and scientist whose passion and skill in illustrating the stunning intricacy of life remains all but unmatched.
Image (partial) courtesy of the Criterion Collection