Monday, May 22, 2006

Jean Painlevé, surrealist filmmaker and oceanographer

What if Dalí had directed 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou' ... or if Jacques Cousteau and Jean Cocteau had combined their super powers … or if ‘Spongebob Squarepants’ were live action film noir? Well, the results of any of those options might have looked fairly close to the work of Jean Painlevé.

Jean Painlevé (1902-1989) was one of the first filmmakers to shoot underwater. A contemporary of Artaud and Bunuel, he was one part surrealist and one part scientist. His over 200 short films elegantly string together moments of
magic realism, such as male seahorses giving birth, for cinematic experience that is utterly fantastic, in the truest sense of that word.

Beyond the pure eye candy factor, Painlevé's films are remarkable for their innovation. In fact, Painlevé's handmade watertight camera box served as a model for its modern equivalents. Arguably, much of Jacque Cousteau's success rides in the wake of Painlevé's accomplishments.

As part of the
UNDERCOVER SURREALISM: Picasso, Miró, Masson and the vision of Georges Bataille exhibition at the Hayward Gallery (11May - 30 July 2006), a selection of his films were screened tonight. More about the exhibition may be found at my ontoLondon blog:

I thoroughly enjoyed these works with their cheeky narration, sensational anthropomorphism, and sublime imagery. The soundtracks for these films, ranging from jaunty Duke Ellington arrangements to goofy electronic farts and bleeps, are equally noteworthy. Painlevé’s films, some of which are over 70 years old, are refreshing and show a natural world that is still very much enchanting and mysterious.

Jean Painlevé's work is now available on DVD from Les Documents Cinématographiques:

A hardcover book about his films, ‘Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé’ is available through

Tiki Chris

1 comment:

Trader Woody said...

Interesting post! I saw the 'seahorses' film a few years back as part of a collection of surrealist shorts at the old Scala cinema, and hadn't taken note of who it was by. It's a real shame the Scala closed down and then turned into a music venue as it had an incredibly diverse range of films on show.

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