The life aquatic

Pub date May 6, 2009
WriterErik Morse
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

SEAWORTHY DVDS If France’s Georges Méliès is known as the first astronomer of cinema, then overlooked director Jean Painlevé might be considered its first aquanaut. The son of French prime minister and mathematician Paul Painlevé, Jean grew up amid the progressive decadence of the Parisian Belle Époque and sowed his anarchist seeds in the bloody aftermath of the Great War of 1914. Studying mathematics and biology at the Sorbonne, Painlevé made a vertiginous departure toward cinema after meeting surrealist artists Antonin Artaud, Jean Vigo, and Luis Buñuel.

Calling his work "neo-zoological drama", Painlevé began assembling hundreds of bizarre and unprecedented nature films, many of which were photographed entirely underwater, beginning in the late 1920s. Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé, a three-DVD collection released this month by Criterion, presents an invaluable survey of the director’s most extraordinary aquacades. Carving a unique niche in cinema as a scientific fabulist, Painlevé’s creations explored the liminal boundaries of technology and fantasy through the evolving apparatus of the camera.

While his early films like Oeufs d’épinoche (The Stickleback Eggs, 1928) — a vivisection of fish eggs being fertilized — are essentially technical investigations into slow-motion and microscopy, his mid-1930s and postwar work finds the director at his most extravagant. Throughout films like Le Vampire (The Vampire, 1945) and Assassins d’eau douce (Freshwater Assassins, 1947), bats transform into Nazis, starfish become ballerinas, and crustaceans conduct sweeping symphonies. Painlevé’s use of "exotic" soundtracking, pseudoscientific narration and sudden, bewildering close-ups creates a singular, anthropomorphic vision of the animal world rather than a mere biological document of it.

Painlevé released one of his most popular films, L’hippocampe (The Sea Horse, 1934) shortly before the beginning of World War II. Though produced under extreme circumstances — the director claims he rigged an electric shocking device to his body to stay awake for days on end so he could film the creature giving birth — The Sea Horse was an overnight success with the French public. During this time, Painlevé also cofounded the world’s first diver’s club with SCUBA inventor Yves le Prieur. Reportedly convening meetings at a private swimming pool in Paris, the Club Des Sous-L’Eau (literally "underwater" but also a pun that, in French, means "drunk") staged aquatic spectacles like underwater ballets and bicycle races on the pool floor.

He continued making short films until the late 1970s and died in 1989. The Criterion DVD also features an eight-part television documentary, Jean Painlevé Through His Films, as well as a 90-minute musical tribute composed by rock band Yo La Tengo.