Jean Painlevé’s camera was astonished, and it provoked that same astonishment among his contemporaries. The son of a mathematician and the two-time prime minister of France, Paul Painlevé, Jean was drawn early to the lives of animals. But his assiduous attendance at Saint Michel’s Parisian cinema ended up shaping his attitude towards science. His was a particular attitude, one in which a hallucinatory artistic vision combined with a sense of deep scientific rigor. The combination gave rise to some of the most unclassifiable cinematographic works of all time.

Painlevé’s contact with the surrealist group of artists was also decisive in shaping his vision of cinema and the service it could provide to science. Rejected by the dogmatic scientific community of the time, their film experiments drew admiration among personalities like Guillaume Apollinaire, René Crevel, and Luis Buñuel. Painlevé maintained a close friendship with Buñuel and this led him to crown the Spanish filmmaker with the curious title “Chief of the ants”, in the celebrated film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). The surrealists’ attraction toward Painlevé’s work was summed up by the writer Sarah Boxer as follows:

His world is a place where mating looks like a fight, a kiss is a prelude to death, males give birth, and branches walk. His films are mysterious, dreamless, sexy, and scary, everything the surrealists wanted to be.

Painlevé’s cinema took place in the overlap between art and science. Whether octopuses, seahorses, hedgehogs, or pigeons, his camera managed to anthropomorphize their behaviors to the point of generating in the viewer a disconcerting feeling of resemblance. The commentary conveyed a familiarity with the behavior of these disturbing creatures through a poetism that was not without its own humor and irony. The observation of nature becomes art through a wise combination with imagination made all the more effective in film’s promotional power. And this fulfilled Painlevé’s ambition of creating a “school without walls.”

One of his most popular works was dedicated, in 1934, to the seahorse or hippocampus. In the film, the equine-shaped fish seem to dance to a happy choreography set to music. Painlevé used music as a means of humanizing the animal world and simultaneously giving his images a greater depth of meaning. When he filmed The Lovelife of the Octopus in 1967, one of his most peculiar films, he sought the collaboration of Pierre Henry, a pioneer of electronic music and one of the creators of the so-called “Musique concrète.” The effect is captivating. A sexual combat between two octopuses transforms into an alien dance happening somewhere far out in the Milky Way. The daily occurrence in the sea is revealed as an implausible fact, such that the viewer recovers some wonder at nature. Painlevé used to claim that, in fact, “science is fiction.”

Image: Craig Nagy – flickr

Jean Painlevé’s camera was astonished, and it provoked that same astonishment among his contemporaries. The son of a mathematician and the two-time prime minister of France, Paul Painlevé, Jean was drawn early to the lives of animals. But his assiduous attendance at Saint Michel’s Parisian cinema ended up shaping his attitude towards science. His was a particular attitude, one in which a hallucinatory artistic vision combined with a sense of deep scientific rigor. The combination gave rise to some of the most unclassifiable cinematographic works of all time.

Painlevé’s contact with the surrealist group of artists was also decisive in shaping his vision of cinema and the service it could provide to science. Rejected by the dogmatic scientific community of the time, their film experiments drew admiration among personalities like Guillaume Apollinaire, René Crevel, and Luis Buñuel. Painlevé maintained a close friendship with Buñuel and this led him to crown the Spanish filmmaker with the curious title “Chief of the ants”, in the celebrated film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). The surrealists’ attraction toward Painlevé’s work was summed up by the writer Sarah Boxer as follows:

His world is a place where mating looks like a fight, a kiss is a prelude to death, males give birth, and branches walk. His films are mysterious, dreamless, sexy, and scary, everything the surrealists wanted to be.

Painlevé’s cinema took place in the overlap between art and science. Whether octopuses, seahorses, hedgehogs, or pigeons, his camera managed to anthropomorphize their behaviors to the point of generating in the viewer a disconcerting feeling of resemblance. The commentary conveyed a familiarity with the behavior of these disturbing creatures through a poetism that was not without its own humor and irony. The observation of nature becomes art through a wise combination with imagination made all the more effective in film’s promotional power. And this fulfilled Painlevé’s ambition of creating a “school without walls.”

One of his most popular works was dedicated, in 1934, to the seahorse or hippocampus. In the film, the equine-shaped fish seem to dance to a happy choreography set to music. Painlevé used music as a means of humanizing the animal world and simultaneously giving his images a greater depth of meaning. When he filmed The Lovelife of the Octopus in 1967, one of his most peculiar films, he sought the collaboration of Pierre Henry, a pioneer of electronic music and one of the creators of the so-called “Musique concrète.” The effect is captivating. A sexual combat between two octopuses transforms into an alien dance happening somewhere far out in the Milky Way. The daily occurrence in the sea is revealed as an implausible fact, such that the viewer recovers some wonder at nature. Painlevé used to claim that, in fact, “science is fiction.”

Image: Craig Nagy – flickr