Jean Painlevé Revealed the Otherworldliness Beneath the Water’s Floor

Born the identical yr that Georges Méliès took cinema to the moon, the French filmmaker Jean Painlevé (1902-1989) skilled his digicam on an equally alien world: the one beneath the water’s floor. In Painlevé’s movies and images, sea creatures rise from obscurity in beautiful element. A lobster claw reaches forth from the soupy black, as if to shake the viewer’s hand; microscopic bristles on a shrimp’s nostril ripple in glittering waves, abstracted by their magnification. In The Daphnia (1928), the filmmaker zooms in on a rustic stream seeking the widespread water flea. One among Painlevé’s final silent movies, Daphnia is a journey from the macro to the micro interspersed with factual title playing cards that floor its far-out visuals. To viewers who’ve by no means given a lot as a passing thought to the water flea, it comes as a revelation; the bug in actual fact shoots like tiny stars via a constellation of miniature organisms, its antennae branching out just like the path of the comet in Crimson Grooms’s Meliès homage, Shoot the Moon (1982). Magnified 150,000 occasions, this swirling universe is without delay weird and mesmerizing, chock stuffed with existential drama because the flea dodges demise within the type of the Hydra.

Painlevé was maybe inclined to view the world via such a defamiliarized lens. Because the son of Paul Painlevé, the mathematician and controversial former Prime Minister of France, Jean grew up estranged from his friends, ever figuring out as an outsider. In opposition to his father’s politics, the younger Painlevé turned an outspoken anarchist who co-founded a Communist scholar group in his late teenagers earlier than being expelled from the occasion. As a younger man, he chafed towards authority, and dropped out of medical college after clashing with a professor with whom he disagreed on ethical grounds. Painlevé solely gained a steady tutorial footing after he started learning comparative anatomy on the Sorbonne, the place two founders of Surrealism, André Breton and Louis Aragon, had (not so coincidentally) studied with the identical professors only some years prior. It was there that his profession as a filmmaker started.

Jean Painlevé, “Feminine seahorse”(c. 1934-1935) solarised gelatin silver print

Jean Painlevé’s first main museum retrospective in France, now on view on the Jeu de Paume, reveals this connective tissue, which hyperlinks the French Surrealist motion to the realm of science. As Painlevé’s work demonstrates, there are clear parallels between scientific and creative statement; James Leo Cahill, in Zoological Surrealism: The Nonhuman Cinema of Jean Painlevé, asserts, “It’s on the dissection desk that the primary beautiful corpses of Surrealism have been born.” The professors within the Sorbonne’s anatomy program initiated figures like Painlevé, Bréton, and Aragon “into a really specific observe of seeing,” one which skilled them in “dissecting, comparative pondering, and imaginative reassembly.” The younger Surrealists took this coaching a step additional, making use of it not solely to their observations, but additionally to their depictions of the world, rendering it in a wholly new gentle. Scientific dissection thus turned creative creation.

But whereas Bréton’s inventive output centered on desires and the unconscious, Painlevé supported Yvan Goll’s competing imaginative and prescient of the Surrealist motion, which argued that Surrealism was the “transposition of actuality onto the next (creative) airplane.” Painlevé appears to have adopted this philosophy lengthy after Bréton’s pondering triumphed: in “Les pieds dans l’eau” (1935) — the article after which the Jeu de Paume present is known as — Painlevé describes how he tirelessly strives to “acquire photos which are as clear and demonstrative as attainable in situations an identical or very near actuality.” Moderately than establishing dreamlike visuals that search to disclose one thing of the human thoughts, the surreality of Painlevé’s movies stems from the strangeness of actuality itself — the overseas rituals of aquatic creatures, the unfamiliar geometries of their microscopic anatomy.

In The Sea Horse (1933), Painlevé’s most profitable movie, a male sea horse labors over the beginning of a whole bunch of translucent, confetti-like youngsters that burst from the darkness of his pouch into life. The voiceover explains the seahorse’s anatomical make-up and ascribes a “barely pompous air” to the species, describing its ornate, “medieval look” — making aesthetic and goal observations in equal measure. The movie is without delay a scientific doc, an academic illustration, a delicate political commentary, and a murals, illuminating the unseen dance of life within the ocean’s foreshore. Nonetheless, this isn’t a actuality that one might simply expertise on a visit to the seashore; whereas the crispness of Painlevé’s filmmaking definitely approximates imaginative and prescient, it augments actuality via clever lighting, composition, and commentary. Even in right this moment’s media-saturated world, it’s uncommon to see sea creatures fairly like this, with every body rigorously composed in a steadiness between black and shimmering white.

Jean Painlevé, “Acera dancing, or the girl with a Renaissance ruff” [Acera or the Witches’ Dance] (c. 1972), classic coloration print

There’s a magic to those movies that by no means fades, even in Painlevé’s later work. The otherworldliness of Acera or the Witches’ Dance (1978), co-created along with his life companion and fixed collaborator, Geneviève Hamon, is simply amplified by the addition of coloration: the tan, fleshy skirts of the Acera make them resemble floating slugs below a blue-tinged cover of stars. Fast cross-cuts intersperse footage of a dancer’s swirling gown, drawing an virtually subliminal parallel between the motions of the mollusk and people of the human performer. Painlevé’s movies are a visible deal with, even for essentially the most jaded viewer.

Jean Painlevé: Toes within the Water continues on the Jeu de Palme (1 Place de la Concorde, Paris) till September 18th.

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