A Brief Study of a Genius Documentarian

I recently discovered the works of French biologist/director Jean Painlevé (1902-1989), and was transfixed by his unique and visionary approach to documentary filmmaking. Painlevé is known for his short documentaries on small aquatic animals, 1934’s The Seahorse being his most iconic film. His films capture the absurdity, as well as the beauty, of these creatures, complimenting incredible footage with unusual music and sound effects, and humorous voiceover. All of his films (the ones I’ve seen at least) are timeless and stunning, reducing the viewer to the size of these animals, experiencing their world on their level, not through sweeping, cinematic shots, but with intimate, scientific observation.

Painlevé received many influences from many places throughout his life. Son of mathematician and former French Prime-Minister Paul Painlevé, he studied Maths but found it uninteresting, switching to Medicine and then Biology. While studying, he met his future life partner and collaborator, Ginette Hamon, daughter of anarchist militants. While at school, he created a union of Socialist Revolutionary Students, then went on to enter a family of anarchists, which put him in contact with some of the most forward-thinking surrealist artists of the early 20th Century, such as Man Ray and Luis Buñel – even appearing in Buñel’s Un Chien Andalou (a short film Buñel made with Salvador Dali). All of these radical ideas, as well as a formal education in Biology, created a unique voice in film that went on to direct over 200 films across six decades of work. His films are fascinating, even (especially) for modern viewers, bringing a sense of levity and characterisation to his subjects. Adopting the mantra Science is Fiction, he created works that transcended the reality of what he was shooting. Through all of the techniques at his disposal, he observed bizarre worlds and creatures, amplifying their inherent strangeness to create something completely unique.

I was immediately transfixed by Painlevé’s work from the first of his films that I saw. I was particularly impressed by the care and intimacy with which he handles the subjects, bringing the audience down into their world, taking time to explore each animal’s quirks and details, and conveying with genuine fascination the intricate workings of these incredible beings. The creatures are brought to life with perfectly fitting soundtracks, often commissioned specifically for these films. From surreal, futuristic sound effects, to uplifting strings, to wild, exciting jazz, the music of Painlevé’s films is what elevates the ‘performance’ of the animals. Their movements and attitudes are exaggerated by the music, drawing the personality and character out. The cherry on the cake is the voiceover, written and recorded by Painlevé. Dry and humorous, it both gives accurate explanations of what is happening, as well as giving the animals motivation, characterising them and allowing us to comprehend these alien images through the lens of human emotion.

I will give a brief review of some of my favourites of Painlevé’s work, and urge anyone to seek them out for themselves. Many of his films are available on YouTube.

 

The Seahorse (1934)

I cannot talk about Jean Painlevé without talking about The Seahorse. The only of his films he shot underwater – using a waterproof case he made himself (none of the underwater footage actually made it to the final cut, but it’s a good piece of PR) – and his most well-known, it is a perfect introduction to Painlevé’s work. Capturing the whimsical nature of these absurd animals through some stunning cinematography, he allows us to forget the idea of a seahorse that we hold in our minds, confronting us with some truly authentic behaviour. He combines in-the-field recordings with scientific examinations, allowing us to understand the animal on both a human and technical level. The trademark voiceover anthropomorphises the creatures, particularly during the section on the reproductive cycle, the seahorse’s defining feature. The Seahorse is Painlevé’s flagship film, and its imagery went on to inspire his partner Hamon to design a popular line of jewellery and wallpaper, among other mediums. If you only watch one of Painlevé’s films, make it this one.

Voyage to the Sky (1937)

Voyage is a departure from Painlevé’s signature work, turning his camera up instead of down. While the majority of his films focus on underwater fauna, he occasionally branched out, pursuing other avenues of discovery. In Voyage, we take a journey though space, and using a mixture of incredible models and some rudimentary animation, he does a spectacular job of whisking us away, travelling through the solar system and beyond. While some of the information he provides is now incorrect, the science demonstrated is still used and taught today. Voyage, while not his most entertaining work, is hugely impressive, and gives an insight, both into Painlevé’s wider interests and inspirations, and into the scientific mind of the 1930s.

Freshwater Assassins (1947)

One of Painlevé’s longer films, Assassins is unique in that it does not focus on one species, rather on one environment, examining the surprisingly brutal world of freshwater ponds. Following a variety of different creatures, he captures some incredible footage of these tiny animals hunting and killing each other in various ways, accompanied with erratic jazz and his classic voiceover. Casting a wider net, he captures a wide variety of behaviours, making for a more comprehensive view than his films normally allow. He builds up this terrifying world piece by piece, knowing we are only seeing a small slice. Assassins is unique in its approach, providing a cast of characters with different looks and traits, all living and dying in an invisible world.

 

These are some of my favourites, and give a good range of the films I am familiar with. I should note that all three of these are in black and white. Painlevé did adopt colour photography in the 60s, and captured some stunning footage (see Liquid Crystals and Acera or The Witches’ Dance). Due to the vast body of work he produced over many years, his films also serve as a timeline of film technology though the 20th century. I have only seen a fraction of the over 200 films Painlevé’s name is attached to, but they have all blown me away. I am confident that whatever you can find will be entertaining, informative and surreal. Dive in, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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