British Universities Film & Video Council

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Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé

Jean Painlevé (1902-1989) was one of the pioneers in the development of scientific cinema and was one of its great popularisers. Oliver Gaycken, Assistant Professor at University of Maryland looks at the filmmaker’s life and work

Oliver_GayckenAbout the author: Oliver Gaycken is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and a core faculty member of the Film Studies Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. His book manuscript, Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, is under contract with Oxford University Press. His articles have appeared in Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television; Science in Context; Journal of Visual Culture; Early Popular Visual Culture, and the collection Learning with the Lights Off.

A scene from Jean Vigo’s L’atalante (1934) has often struck me as emblematic of Jean Painlevé’s position between the worlds of professional science and the avant-garde. The scene takes place in the barge cabin of Le pére Jules (Michel Simon) as he guides Juliette (Dita Parlo) through his collection of objects that he had amassed during his life of maritime travel. His cabinet of curiosities contains quite a few bizarre and fascinating artifacts, including the nose of a sawfish, a Cuban fan, and photographs from the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake. The most startling item in this eclectic collection is a jar that contains a pair of human hands. They belonged, pére Jules says, to his best friend.

Painlevé provided these hands for the film, apparently ‘borrowing’ them from a collection to which his scientific career gave him access. Simultaneously a medical specimen and a surrealist objet trouvé, these pickled hands gesture in two directions at once, a tendency that characterizes Painlevé’s films more generally. His film smuggle images from the laboratory into the popular cinema, reinvigorating the cold gaze of objective observation with the spirit of curiosity and wonder.

Besides being one of Vigo’s best friends (he was at the filmmaker’s deathbed when he died at the age of 29 from tuberculosis), Painlevé was enmeshed in a web of avant-garde connections. He was an acquaintance of Luis Buñuel’s, to whom he showed a film of an actual eye surgery (Buñuel’s response: ‘Do you really believe that just because I cut open an eye in a film that I like that sort of thing? …operations horrify me. I can’t stand the sight of blood’). He had a working relationship with Georges Bataille, who published Painlevé’s and Eli Lotar’s photographs in Documents, and Lotar would be Painlevé’s cameraman for a brief period in the early 1930s. He spent weekends with Alexander Calder. He enjoyed a brief friendship with Sergei Eisenstein, whom Painlevé helped to smuggle into Switzerland in a basket of dirty laundry in order to see the silent-era film diva Valeska Gert. He was a friend of Man Ray’s, whose L’Etoile de Mer (1928) owes its starfish footage to Painlevé; and he also enjoyed friendships with Pierre Prévert, Jacques Boiffard (Man Ray’s assistant) and told anecdotes about his encounters with André Breton and Antonin Artaud. Another crucial, though unknown, figure is his longtime collaborator and partner, Genèvieve Hamon, daughter of the libertarian anarchists Augustin and Henriette Hamon.

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