Despite making more than 200 films over a career that spanned from 1925 to 1982, filmmaker Jean Painlevé has been all but forgotten outside of France. A scientist by training and an anarchist by ideology, Painlevé brought a wry wit, and an avant-garde sensibility to the nascent field of nature documentary. Two decades before Jacques Cousteau first trained a camera on sea life, Painlevé was making nature documentaries for ordinary cinemagoers that subtly challenged social norms and political convention.
Painlevé's first film L'œuf d'épinoche: de la fécondation à l'éclosion (The Stickleback's Egg) stirred controversy among scientists for the very idea of using film as a medium of science. When he presented the film to the French National Science Academy (Académie des Sciences) in 1928, many of the gathered researchers were outraged. Though Painlevé continued to make films for the scientific community, he increasingly also developed cuts for ordinary cinemagoers which were anything but staid.
Using unconventional cinematography and editing, anthropomorphizing narration, and wild jazz or early electronic music scores, Painlevé looked to sea life to make thinly veiled critiques of prevailing social norms, particularly with regard to gender politics. In L'Hippocampe (The Sea Horse, 1933) Painlevé took obvious pleasure in highlighting the responsibility of the male of the species to carry eggs and give birth, while Les Danseuses de mer (Sea Ballerinas, 1956), Comment naissent les méduses (How Some Jellyfish are Born, 1960) and Le bal des sorcières' (The Witches' Dance, 1972) all concern species that do not conform to the conventional gender divisions for sexual reproduction. Not limited to gender politics, Painlevé's post-war films Le Vampire (The Vampire) and Assassins d'eau douce (Freshwater Assassins) used the animal kingdom as proxies for denouncing the parasitic nature of National Socialism and mankind's inherent capacity for cruel barbarism.
Painlevé was a technical pioneer in his use of extreme magnification and time lapse photography to focus and condense the spectacle of the natural world for cinemagoers. Through extreme magnification, he allowed cinemagoers to peer into the mysterious, often monstrous, world of microscopic sea life, and via time lapse he condensed days into minutes allowing his audiences to see, for example, zygotes rapidly mature and spawn.
The 3-disc box set from the Criterion Collection entitled Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé includes sixteen of Painlevé's films for general cinema audiences (three silents from 1927-28 and thirteen talkies from 1927-1982), two silent films for researchers, four films for science museum exhibits, and one children's animation.
The 23 Jean Painlevé films included in this set are as follows:|
- Hyas et stenorinques ( Hyas and Stenorhynchus, 1927, 10 minutes , B&W)
- Oursins ( Sea Urchins, 1954, 11 minutes., Color)
- Comment naissent les méduses (How Some Jellyfish are Born, 1960, 14 minutes, B&W)
- Cristaux liquides (Liquid Crystals, 1978, 6 minutes, Color)
- L'Hippocampe (The Sea Horse, 1933, 14 minutes, B&W)
- Les amours de la pieuve (The Love Life of the Octopus, 1967, 14 minutes, Color)
- Histoires de crevettes (Shrimp Stories, 1964, 10 minutes, Color)
- Acera ou le bal des sorcières' (Acera, or the Witches' Dance, 1972, 13 minutes, Color)
- Le Vampire (The Vampire, 1945, 9 minutes, B&W)
- Assassins d'eau douce (Freshwater Assassins, 1947, 24 minutes, B&W)
- Les Danseuses de mer (Sea Ballerinas, 1956, 13 minutes, Color)
- Diatomées (Diatoms, 1968, 17 minutes, Color)
- Les Pigeons du square (Pigeons in the Square, 1982, 27 minutes, Color)
- La Pieuvre (The Octopus, 1927, 13 minutes, B&W)
- Les Oursins (Sea Urchins, 1928, 10 minutes, B&W)
- La Daphine (Daphnia, 1928, 9 minutes, B&W)
- L'œuf d'épinoche: de la fécondation à l'éclosion (The Stickleback's Egg, 1925, 26 minutes, B&W)
- Traitement expérimental d'une hémorragie chez le chien (Experimental Treatment of a Hemorrhage in a Dog, 1930, 4 minutes, B&W)
- La Quatriéme Dimension (The Fourth Dimension, 1936, 10 minutes, B&W)
- Images mathématiques de la lutte pour la vie (The Struggle for Survival, 1937, 14 minutes, B&W)
- Voyage dans le ciel (Voyage to the Sky, 1937, 11 minutes, B&W)
- Similitudes des longueurs et des vitesses (Similarities between Length and Speed, 1937, 10 minutes, B&W)
- Barbe-bleue (Bluebeard, 1938, 13 minutes, Color)
The films are presented in their original aspect ratio of roughly 1.33:1. Although the transfers are up to Criterion's typical high standards, the film prints have not received the level of restoration typical of Criterion. All of the films suffer from some degree of damage ranging from minor scratches to significant print damage, but none are unwatchable. Detail, sharpness and contrast are typically very good, with color mostly looking fine through at times perhaps a shade too red.
The original French DD mono is underwhelming with tinny audio further marred by tape hiss and distortion. Optional English subtitles are up to Criterion's typical standard.
The extras consist of an optional new 95-minute score by American indie rock band Yo La Tengo to eight of Painlevé's popular shorts, an interview with the band, a 168-minute eight-part French television documentary series about Painlevé's life and work, and a 26-page booklet with an essay by film scholar Scott MacDonald.
As nature documentaries, the films of Jean Painlevé pale in comparison to those available to modern audiences, but as examples of historic avant-garde filmmaking at the crossroads of science, politics, and art, they still have the capacity to shine.