Academic journal article Film & History

Surréalisme Sous-l'Eau: Science and Surrealism in the Early Films and Writings of Jean Painlevé

Academic journal article Film & History

Surréalisme Sous-l'Eau: Science and Surrealism in the Early Films and Writings of Jean Painlevé

Article excerpt

Introduction

In 1928, French biologist and filmmaker Jean Painlevé screened his first film, The Stickleback's Egg, before a group of scientists from the Académie des sciences in Paris. Painlevé had spent a week filming the embryonic development of stickleback, a small fish native to northern Europe, and he wanted to reveal his findings. The group watched as a spermatozoid entered an egg and the first cells began to divide, forming the digestive tract and heart, while blood began to pump throughout the body. During the screening, a botanist stood up and declared, "Movies are not serious, I'm leaving!" and stormed out of the room.

This wasn't the first time members of the Académie voiced disapproval of cinema's foray into academia, but the reaction only strengthened Painlevé' s resolve to promote the use of film in science, and in 1930 he cofounded the Association for Photographic and Cinematic Documentation in the Sciences. By 1982 he had created over two hundred films on a broad range of natural, scientific, and political subjects, though ten of his underwater films created before the outbreak of World War II remain among the most ethereal and poetic works in his oeuvre. Armed with a waterproofed camera, the filmmaker used a breathing apparatus to stay underwater for long periods of time in order to film crustaceans, mollusks, starfish, and octopi in the Bay of Arcachon and other bodies of water around Brittany. Painlevé also filmed these sea creatures in artificial environments, keeping large aquariums that he used for observation and research. With the help of these aquariums, he was able to capture never-before-seen moments such as a male seahorse giving birth.

Painlevé was a biologist, but his early films strayed from pure science as he experimented with the ideas and imagery of the Surrealism movement. Surrealism had emerged a decade earlier out of the carnage of World War I, leading the Surrealists to challenge the value of rational thought and bourgeois mores which had led to war. Writers, poets, artists and filmmakers aligned with Surrealism sought to revolutionize human thought and action, and strove to free society from the constraints of rationality and reason. Originally a literary endeavor partly based upon the writings of Freud, the Surrealism movement eventually evolved to include the visual arts and film. Poets searched for strange juxtapositions, artists delved into the unconscious for erotic and dream-like imagery, and filmmakers stretched the boundaries of their medium from embracing new technology to writing puzzling plotlines. Although Jean Painlevé made films about nature, he was acquainted with many of the Surrealist filmmakers including Jean Vigo, Ivan GoIl, Pierre Naville, Luis Buñuel, and of course, Man Ray, who borrowed a starfish from Painlevé' s aquarium for his 1928 film L'Étoile de mer, and used film footage from Painlevé' s studies of the creature. Painlevé' s early underwater films strove to bring the dark mysteries of the sea to light - just as the Surrealists struggled to penetrate the recesses of the unconscious, but his commitment to science made him an outsider to the movement. His poetic approach to science resulted in neither the Surrealists nor the scientific community fully supporting his work, but he preferred to blur the line between science and art, often saying "science is fiction."

Painlevé advocated for a unique cinematic approach to the avant-garde that was firmly rooted in scientific discovery, yet one that also embraced the enigmatic images and processes of nature. Instead of striving to reveal nature's mysteries (the charge of his fellow scientists), the filmmaker wanted to revel in them and celebrate man's inability to impose order and rationality upon nature. Like the Surrealists, he wanted to reveal the marvelous and challenge the accepted notion of reality, but he did so using scientific investigation and cinematic devices instead of psychoanalysis, dreams, and automatic methods. …

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