It is somewhat ironic that we have marginalized the wildlife documentary so mercilessly; after all, film was partially borne out of a desire to better observe and identify natural phenomenon. For instance, Muybridge’s 19th-century instant-photography techniques, universally recognized as forerunners of the motion picture, were originally designed to capture the movement of a galloping horse. Indeed, the transfixing persistence of motion in the visual realm—particularly organic motion, as a pervasive reminder of the mystery of life—has both necessitated and foretold the need for a device to regard and preserve it.
Jean Painlevé was arguably one of the first and most prolific of auteurs to seize upon this approach, recognizing that biological reality, if properly transcribed, could be appreciated as art. An occasional French actor and fervent science buff, Painlevé befriended Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel in the 1920s; the partnership would inspire him to develop his own non-surrealist filmic aesthetic around the notion of reality’s superiority over conscious artifice. To illustrate this philosophy he directed over 200 short films, spanning from the silent era through the implementation of sound, color, and video, and halting near his death in the 1980s. The Criterion Collection, with their Painlevé collection Science Is Fiction, have done a fair job of representing not only the commercial benchmarks in this singular filmmaker’s oeuvre, but the odd digressions most indicative of his ever-probing personality.
If one isolates a Painlevé clip showing embryonic sea jellies with an atonal, electronic soundtrack, it could easily be mistaken for Brakhage: Such is the mysterious beauty he managed to capture, mostly by allowing his eye and acute sense of wonderment to lead the camera. And yet his films’ occasional moments of abstract poetry were likely unintentional. Painlevé was not avant-garde: He often left the poetry up to nature, acting as a passive but punctilious receptacle during production. Unsurprisingly, some of Painlevé‘s most obvious triumphs are his single-reel aquatic documentaries, which pick a species and delve into their habits, their habitat, and their procreative process; like Dalí, who once very purposefully affixed the sex organs of a prosthetic lobster to the mouthpiece of a sculpted telephone, Painlevé was fascinated with invertebrate reproduction. Both Sea Urchins and How Some Jellyfish are Born feature rather voyeuristic underwater footage of their titular characters spawning—only to end, smirking, with a collection of newborns spelling out the title “Fin.” Painlevé used tongue-in-cheek post-production sparingly, but well.
Indeed, the films compiled in Science Is Fiction are hardly clinical; they seem crafted with the intention of promoting an environmental sensuality. Just as Muybridge’s original equine series was not in the name of zoology, but at the behest of a mogul wanting to settle a wager, so Painlevé‘s work, too, understands that the common man’s relationship to nature is often that of the entertained spectator. And so the director’s “popular” documentaries, edited specifically for the public, often contain moments of obvious comic relief. You can feel Painlevé‘s macabre grin when a Duke Ellington performance of Chopin’s “Funeral March” plays in The Vampire, a subversive study on hematophagous bats. And while the words it speaks are authoritative, the raspy, disapproving voice that narrates The Love Life of the Octopus sounds satirically unreliable—creating an engaging friction between the aural and optic content that manages to both transfix and tickle us.
In their desire to entertain, the films occasionally fail to tell us much about their animal subjects, favoring instead the novelty of anthropomorphism. For example, Sea Ballerinas is far more interested in marveling at the graceful locomotion of sea stars than it is at offering theories for the evolutionary purpose of that movement. But Painlevé‘s stunning footage transcends his lack of comprehensive research, the fruit of which would have no doubt been lost on the intended audience of these documentaries: the typical moviegoer. With them in mind, Painlevé offers sights that represent the continual drama of organic life unfolding. Expressionistic seahorses explode from their father’s abdomen pouch and frolic across a super-imposed image of actual horses racing at a track—while no doubt influencing Henry Selick’s eye-popping stop-motion creatures for The Life Aquatic. Shots of a vampire bat draining the blood from a guinea pig are juxtaposed with clips of Max Shreck in Nosferatu. A crusty crustacean conducts a full Technicolor sea star ballet with his rigid antennae, like a tide pool version of The Red Shoes.
Writing on the purpose of film as an art form, Siegfried Kracauer says, “We cannot hope to embrace reality unless we penetrate its lowest layers.” Painlevé was a fearless diver, and the deeper he traveled the more amused and awestruck he became.
The image quality of Jean Painlevé's films is a bit of a mixed bag. Clearly the best possible prints have been used, and considering the cleanliness of the 1920s material, one would assume that the filmmaker's estate or industry colleagues have preserved his celluloid since the start of his career. Due to the restoration methods used, however, it becomes all too apparent when Painlevé dipped into the stock footage bank: The resolution instantly becomes fuzzy, and in the case of color clips, an overwhelming red washes the unlucky sea creatures on screen. Despite these irritatingly showing seams, however, the content is never unwatchable, and it's a small price to pay to see the Murnau-esque shadows and silhouettes of The Sea Horse with such definition. The audio mixing, while simple, makes adequate use of the mono tracks, especially when featuring Painlevé's own musique concrète.
The special features on this three-disc set add depth and clarity to the self-portrait of Painlevé that his popular science films only adumbrate. In addition to the 16 commercial documentaries, Science Is Fiction collects four physics/mathematics short studies, created by Painlevé for French academics (his illustration of the fourth spatial dimension with a photograph of an elephant might be the director's most avant-garde moment), a claymation retelling of "Bluebeard" strongly reminiscent of George Pal's eerie Euro-folklore works, and two silent "research films"-one of which displays an operation experiment on a sickly dog with dim, and unintentionally haunting, cinematography. Yo La Tengo, manic fans of Painlevé, also contribute their alternative scores to eight short films, viewable back-to-back as a suite entitled "The Sounds of Science"; it's mostly a misfire of a sonic tribute, since the new soundtracks eradicate Painlevé's gently ironic narration, but the treatment does emphasize the poetry of the images in a bald, unabashed manner. Finally, disc three is devoted entirely to the eight-part TV special "Jean Painlevé Through His Films," a series of highly illuminating interviews with the director about his life, work, and peerless outsider status. Indeed, despite the love of nature Painlevé was instilling within audiences, many marine biologists felt his subtle joking would confuse, rather than delight, impressionable youths: As Painlevé puts it, he was accused on many occasions of being a "fantasist." His critics were wrong. And for setting the record straight, the Criterion Collection has released one of the finest DVD packages of the year so far.
The films of Jean Painlevé collected in Science Is Fiction are never more than mildly educational, but never less than visually hypnotic.