British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Science is Fiction/ The Sounds of Science

Before David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau - there was Jean Painlevé, Poetic pioneer of science films, Painlevé explored a twilight realm of vampire bats, seahorses, octopi, and liquid crystals. In collaboration with his life-partner, Genevive Hamon, Painlevé made more than 200 science and nature films and was an early champion of the genre. This selection from 50 years of passionate scientific enquiry includes his most famous films - The Sea Horse, The Vampire, The Love Life of the Octopus and Sea Urchins - with their often-amazing music, which ranges from Duke Ellington to the French pioneer of electronic music, Pierre Henry.

Possessing a remarkable eye for life’s eerie curiosities, Painlevé's art pivots on the premise that ‘science is fiction’. He created a landscape of bug-eyed wonderment marked by a playful sense of nature’s hidden poetry and scandalized the scientific world with a cinema designed to entertain as well as edify. In the process he won over the circle of Surrealists and avant-gardists and counted amongst his friends Antonin Artaud, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Vigo, and Luis Buuel. Painlevé's astonishing documentaries witness a genuinely ‘magic realism’, which continues to enchant audiences around the world.

A second DVD includes: ‘The Sounds of Science’, an exclusive extra disc featuring an alternative soundtrack by US experimental, art-rock band Yo La Tengo to a selection of the films. From screeching art-rock and jangling pop songs to electronic soundscapes and hushed lullabies, their music explores the range of musical history without ever sounding less than modern. In 2001 the band was selected by the San Francisco International Film Festival committee to compose new music for the films of Jean Painlevé. Their alternately sombre and joyously moody music seemed like a natural fit for Painlevé's dramatic underwater studies. Yo La Tengo’s score has previously only been available on a CD, ‘The Sounds of the Sounds of Science’. This is the first time that the music and Painlevé's films can be seen together on DVD.

DVD extras include: Filmed introduction by academic Dr Michael Abecassis; Two short films by Percy Smith: The Birth of a Flower (1910), The Strength and Agility of Insects (1911); A short film by Adrian Klein: Colour on the Thames (1935); 2-page illustrated booklet with essays and film notes
French (Standard)
Year of release
Year of production
Biology; Film studies; Music; Science
animals; archive films; experimental music; film music; Painlevé, Jean (1902-1989); science films


Jean Painlevé
Yo La Tengo

Distribution Formats

Region 2 PAL
120 minutes



BFI Distribution

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The British Film Institute is a specialist non-theatric rental distributor of international fiction and documentary films on 16mm and 35mm film, as well as VHS and DVD video. The holdings are so vast that only those titles available on DVD and HD Digital are listed in full on the website, so it is worth enquiring about specific titles that might only be available for hire in other formats. The BFI has partnered with on-line platforms such as lovefilm and blinkbox to deliver a selection of films to buy or rent in digital format, and others are streamed free of charge on the BFI’s YouTube channel or as dowloadable clips on the Creative Archive section of the BFI’s own website.

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