British Universities Film & Video Council

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Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé

André Bazin wrote an extraordinary essay that analyzes the aesthetics of science films. Entitled ‘Science Film: Accidental Beauty,’ it is worth quoting at some length:

 When Muybridge and Marey made the first scientific research films, they not only invented the technology of cinema but also created its purest aesthetic. For this is the miracle of the science film, its inexhaustible paradox. At the far end extreme of inquisitive, utilitarian research, in the most absolute proscription of aesthetic intentions, cinematic beauty develops as an additional, supernatural gift…The camera alone possesses the secret key to this universe where supreme beauty is identified at once with nature and chance: that is, with all that a certain traditional aesthetic considers the opposite of art. The Surrealists alone foresaw the existence of this art that seeks in the almost impersonal automatism of their imagination a secret factory of images.

 Bazin certainly appreciated Painlevé’s films, but his comments here, written in 1947 on the occasion of the International Association of Science Films, a three-day conference at the Musée de l’Homme that Painlevé organized, celebrates Painlevé’s significant contributions after World War II to the popularization of scientific cinema, which occurred primarily through his work as a film programmer. It is worth mentioning in this context his friendship with Georges Franju, who, along with Henri Langlois, was instrumental in founding the Cinématheque française. Painlevé made Franju the secretary general of the Institute of Scientific Cinema in 1945, which Painlevé had founded in 1930 to ensure the distribution of scientific films, and he would go on to write the narration for Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (1949). Painlevé also was a strong public voice for demanding high aesthetic standards from nonfiction films; his essay ‘The Castration of the Documentary,’ a self-described ‘polemic’ originally printed in Cahiers du cinèma in 1953, as an appeal to nonfiction filmmakers to expend the energy necessary to capture ‘the unexpected, the unusual, the lyrical.’ Painlevé’s career continues well beyond the high-water mark of surrealism while also serving as an indication of its persistence (in this sense, resembling Buñuel’s career).

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(image: BFI / Courtesy of Brigitte Berg)

Art critic Ralph Rugoff has branded Painlevé’s cinema ‘an adventure in the aesthetics of uncanniness,’ mentioning his tendency to take ‘uncanny hybrids’ as the subjects of his films. The focus of his most popular film, The Seahorse (1934), a bipedal fish that is one of the rare species where the male both carries and then gives birth to live young, is a good example of this tendency. The notion of hybridity is good shorthand for a cohesive thread that runs through Painlevé’s work, because his films defy easy categorization. He frequently is described as a peripheral surrealist, but depending on what films from his nearly 200-title filmography one emphasizes, he also could be described as a science educator, or as a research scientist. The new BFI DVD set (see separate review) will help to bring these compelling films to the wide audience to which they are addressed.

Oliver Gaycken

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