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Science is fiction

21 Films by Jean Painlevé

Pamela Marvin 6 October 2009

Depth: the filmmaker delved into surprising detail

Many of Painlevé's films have two versions, one cut for scientists and one for popular distribution

In the course of his prolific career, Jean Painlevé (1902-1989) produced over 200 films covering topics in science and mathematics. Science is Fiction is a collection of 23 of his films. With wry titles like “Fresh Water Assassins” and "How Some Jellyfish Are Born", Painlevé shades his films with tones of humor and sly anthropomorphism. His whimsical perspective helps move the films from dry scientific record to charming vignettes.

In his life, and in his work, Painlevé managed strike a delicate balance between art and science. His films are full of juxtaposition. In 1925 he pioneered micro-cinematography and deftly used it to demonstrate the miraculous world within the ordinary in “The Stickleback’s Egg”. It was the beginning of a creative career that would span 60 years.

Painlevé was born to a life of science and privilege. His father, a mathematician, was twice elected Prime Minister of France. As a young man, he struggled in school, darting from math to medicine before settling on biology. Living in Paris in the 1920s, he floated between the worlds of science and art, soaking up heady ideas from the Surrealists, Dadaism and Anarchists. In his films, he often played with these themes combining factual with fanciful, and blending hard science with aesthetics. Many of his films have two versions, one cut for scientists and one for popular distribution. In “The Octopus” (1927), the first film he made for popular audiences, we see the octo-star of the film in his natural habitat, as well as in more off-beat shots: squeezing through a window, up in a tree, scuttling over a doll’s face. In later films, Painlevé used his camera to surprise us with the architectural beauty to be found in the spines of urchins and the tails of fresh-water shrimp.

Since his death in 1989, Painlevé’s films have become the subject of renewed interest. Several of his films were scored by the rock group Yo La Tengo and shown at the 2001 San Francisco Film Festival. David Lim, of the Los Angeles Times, said:

Many viewers may not have heard of trailblazing underwater documentarian and avant-gardist Jean Painlevé, but, his historical importance is undeniable: Long before the high-definition panoramas of Planet Earth, before even the landmark wildlife documentaries of Richard Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau, a Frenchman named Jean Painlevé was making films that captured the natural world as it had never been seen before.

With the release of Science is Art, a new wave of fans is discovering the work of Jean Painlevé. Look for the compilation on Netflix, or your local Library.