Jean Painlevé

Jean Painlevé with his aquatic camera

Jean Painlevé photo from Wikipedia.

I’m going to stick with the oceanographic theme this blog has had lately because why not. Let’s watch some Jean Painlevé films. Do you know of him? He did a lot of things — he wrote, acted, translated, collaborated with surrealists, got involved in anarchist and communist stuff — but he is best known for his science and nature films, some of which he shot underwater using an aquatic camera like the one he’s holding above. There’s a very good essay by Jim Knox at Senses of Cinema here that captures what it is I like about his films:

Short works, almost exclusively documentaries devoted to natural history, his films were neither strictly intended as popular novelties nor as celluloid jargon for academic peers. This fragile balance of tone and method, so enchanting to an awestruck contemporary viewer, provides the clearest precedent for the work of an Anglophone documentarist like David Attenborough; Painlevé gives a fabulist’s account of the enchanted marginalia of animal life and behaviour.

Enchanted marginalia is exactly what I am perpetually on the lookout for. It doesn’t come off if the auteur holding up the frame around their chosen subject — the love life of octopuses, for example — has a cynical view of their audience, and unfortunately in my opinion most people who make films do. To maintain the fragile balance that Knox refers to requires something finer and stranger than empathy with one’s audience; it requires a sense that somewhere out there are people, some people at least, who will intuitively understand what is hilarious and touching about a crustacean waggling its antennae to plink-plonk music.

Here are excerpts from Amours de la pieuvre (Love life of the octopus) (1965), from The Criterion Collection’s DVD Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

If the video won’t play you can watch it here.

And here is an earlier one, Crabes et Crevettes, part I, 1929.

If you’d like to read more about Painlevé I recommend the Electric Sheep review of Science is Fiction here, and the Scott Macdonald essay here.

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