Criterion Sunday 468: “Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé”

The Criterion Collection may generally be known for championing the great auteurs, but they also do some rather left-field choices, whether that’s Michael Bay (albeit early on in their existence; I’m not sure they’d give his films much time now), weird low-budget 50s sci-fi and now this set of short films about animals, which somewhat defy any straightforward description. The first disc presents his “popular films”, which is to say those made for the public (and not academics).

There’s a certain wonder to the first, Hyas and Stenorhynchus (1927), about little weird algae-like creatures with their spindly spines. The photography is obviously not as advanced as now, or even Painlevé’s later films, but there’s something luminous about the grainy, ethereal monochrome of these aquatic close-ups that has a magic to it. Sea Urchins (1954) has a lot of the same tentacles and marine weirdness but is somehow slightly unsettling, perhaps from the pulsating 1950s electronic score or just the better closer photography available. It’s co-directed with Painlevé’s partner, Geneviève Hamon, like a lot of his later films and sadly she seems not to get mentioned much in writing about him and his work. Clearly, though, both had a fascination with jellyfish, or with the category of weird gelatinous and tentacle-y things, because it feels like a number of his films deal with them. How Some Jellyfish Are Born (1960) also shows an interest in some unusual methods of conception and birth, with perhaps some hints towards other orders of gender and sexuality in these creatures which could probably have been developed more.

One of his better works, and certainly the creature with which he’s most linked (given the set’s box art), The Sea Horse (1933) makes clear just how extremely weird these creatures are. Just watching them is like gazing upon some Ray Harryhausen stop motion animated monster, but in a cute sort of way, though maybe there’s a bit of Lovecraft to them. Certainly Painlevé gets much more into the reproduction here, with the males gestating the babies, and seeing the tiny little ones come out is so fascinating (though I could have used without the shock cut to them cutting a pregnant seahorse open, even if I recognise this is ultimately a scientific film). Anyway, this is the kind of thing that Painlevé excels at, the intersection of science and the oneiric, which is also where The Love Life of the Octopus (1967) seems to sit. Truly octopuses are the most terrifying of creatures. Slithering yet smart, and, like so many of Painlevé and Hamon’s scientific studies, they have many tentacles. This particular short sets up our subject before getting into reproduction, and that too is strange and creepy, with thousands of little octopuses swimming away from these loose threads of gestating eggs. I remain properly terrified by this animal.

Further short films continue their fascination. With Shrimp Stories (1964), the directors acknowledge how ridiculous shrimp look with an overtly comic introduction, before we get into these (once again) elaborately tentacled sea creatures. Well in the case of shrimp, less tentacles than waving antennae and frantically moving little feet. If Acera, or The Witches’ Dance (1972) were merely an excuse to orchestrate the delightful aquatic ‘dance’ of these tiny snail-like organisms, then that would be enough (they swirl about, all but hopping up and down), but we also discover their hermaphroditic reproductive rituals and the gestation of tiny new acera. The photography is luminous and, as ever, these animals are strangely compelling. Sadly Freshwater Assassins (1947), despite its title, just seems a little bit duller, more like the orthodox nature shows you might get on TV, with less of the ugly weirdness of his other animals, mostly being just bugs living and fighting under the water in a pond. In Sea Ballerinas (1956), though, there’s a sense of humour, with it ending on a brittle fish seemingly conducting an orchestra, but otherwise there’s a lot of tumbling, shuffling and crawling around.

Stepping away from the sea creatures to watch something far more abstract is Liquid Crystals (1978). This is in fact closer to a late Stan Brakhage film than the kind of natural science pieces Painlevé did earlier on. It’s beautiful, though, as is an earlier film about the blood-sucking vampire bat, The Vampire (1945), which contextualises it in a short history of entertainment before letting it loose on an unfortunate guinea pig. There’s the customary blend here of limpid beauty and a sense of mystery in the photography, an informative voiceover and the dull academic subject matter, but the first enlivens the latter. Back to the abstraction in Diatoms (1968), but partly because the creatures under the (literal) microscope here are single-celled algae-like things, of various shapes, floating around on their own or in colonies. I’m still not exactly clear what a diatom is or does but I certainly got an almost trippy vision of their lives.

The final film on the first disc, and the latest film collected in the set, is Pigeons in the Square (1982). Pigeons get all kinds of bad press, and though this (relatively long) short film has a comical edge to it, Painlevé comes from a science background so he’s not interested in adding to the negative propaganda about pigeons. They are by turns majestic, beautifully patterned, comically silly, strutting, hopping, fluttering and pecking. Sure some of the urban varieties are a bit bedraggled and their seduction attempts wouldn’t pass muster by human standards, but this film just enjoys watching pigeons, and I enjoyed watching this film.

The second disc starts with “early popular silent films”, some of his earliest works. There’s The Octopus (1927), which has sort of a structure, but is mostly just the octopus slinking around (because if there’s anything we learn from the first disc it’s that Jean Painlevé loves a tentacled sea creature). The fragile beauty to these silent films is exemplified by Sea Urchins (1928), a creature he returned to in the 1950s (on the first disc), with luminous oneiric cinematography and no sound to distract (even if I did put some music on). The urchins wave around but also move and burrow. One thing I could do without is watching one get cut open but I guess there is at least some scientific method here. I am, though, prompted to wonder if my response to these short films is related to how much I like the creatures rather than a dispassionate critique of the filmmaking. I mean we may all know and love a seahorse, and even have opinions on octopuses, but what’s a Daphnia (1928)? Still for all its tiny bug like size — and there’s some serious magnification happening here — there’s even a bit of drama when the hydra comes along. A lovely little film.

Under the heading “silent research films”, there are a couple of Painlevé’s scientific shorts included and you can see immediately the difference from his “popular films”. The Stickleback’s Egg (1925) deals with a less than thrilling subject (microscopic organisms) and is pretty dry. There’s some great close-up photography that must have been very advanced for the time, and being silent I was able to put on a jaunty score, but this is mainly interesting as a comparison. Meanwhile Experimental Treatment of a Hemorrhage in a Dog (1930) is only four minutes, and exemplifies his specifically scientific focus in the silent era, but I really did not need to see this. The dog was fine after the procedure the film is clear to point out and that’s good, but it’s pretty graphic.

Unlike his more famous short films about animals (often underwater tentacled ones), Jean Painlevé also made a series of films dealing with various abstract concepts, here collected as “Films for La Palais de la Découverte”. The Fourth Dimension (1936) covers that idea, suggesting ways in which it could be understood, possibly as something beyond our own conception, something almost magical. It’s hard to really get to grips with it but Painlevé is serious and educational and it’s a lot to take in. More abstract scientific ideas are on show in The Struggle for Survival (1937) although this film is heavy on the text, which almost overwhelms the film with detail. He’s talking about population growth and certainly covers some ideas about it. Turning his cinematic attention to the Earth’s place in the universe is the subject of Voyage to the Sky (1937), which seems to conclude that in the grand vastness of space, we humans are almost ridiculously insignificant. It’s a rather bleak conclusion but nicely illustrated. Finally, Similarities Between Length and Speed (1937) is a rather abstruse short film on a topic I don’t really understand (which is to say, anything to do with mathematics). However, Jean Painlevé is an engaging filmmaker and tries to grapple seriously with his subject, which is about how bigger things aren’t exactly proportional.

Finally comes the single film under the heading “animation”, Bluebeard (1938), and it certainly a departure from Painlevé’s other films, being for a start not a scientific study of animals but instead a gloriously colourful claymation animated film about the bloodthirsty titular pirate, chopping off heads hither and yon. It’s all rather jolly and odd, and dark too and a fine way to round out the set.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

My custom on this blog has not been to give ratings to short films, so the list below is just of the films included in the order they are presented. However my favourite was probably The Sea Horse, with the two academic research works and the mathematics film as my least favourite.

Hyas et stenorinques (Hyas and Stenorhynchus, 1929) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer André Raymond | Length 10 minutes.
Oursins (Sea Urchins, 1954) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Cinematographer Claude Beausoleil | Length 11 minutes.
Comment naissent des méduses (How Some Jellyfish Are Born, 1960) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 14 minutes.
Cristaux liquides (Liquid Crystals, 1978) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 6 minutes.
L’Hippocampe ou ‘Cheval marin’ (The Seahorse, 1933) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer André Raymond | Length 14 minutes.
Les Amours de la pieuvre (The Love Life of the Octopus, 1967) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 14 minutes.
Histoires de crevettes (Shrimp Stories, 1964) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 10 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 26 September 2021.

Acera ou Le Bal des sorcières (Acera, or The Witches’ Dance, 1972) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 13 minutes.
Le Vampire (The Vampire, 1945) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 9 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 27 September 2021.

Les Assassins d’eau douce (Freshwater Assassins, 1947) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 24 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 28 September 2021.

Les Danseuses de la mer (Sea Ballerinas, 1956) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 13 minutes.
Diatomées (Diatoms, 1968) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer Catherine Thiriot | Length 17 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 October 2021.

Les Pigeons du square (Pigeons in the Square, 1982) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer Vincent Berczi | Length 27 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.

La Pieuvre (The Octopus, 1927) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 13 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 3 October 2021.

Les Oursins (Sea Urchins, 1928) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
La Daphnie (Daphnia, 1928) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 9 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 7 October 2021.

L’Oeuf d’épinoche (The Stickleback’s Egg, 1925) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 26 minutes.
Traitement éxperimental d’une hémorragie chez le chien (Experimental Treatment of a Hemmorhage in a Dog, 1930) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 4 minutes.
La Quatrième dimension (The Fourth Dimension, 1936) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
Images mathématiques de la lutte pour la vie (The Struggle for Survival, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 14 minutes.
Voyage dans le ciel (Voyage to the Sky, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 11 minutes.
Similitudes des longueurs et des vitesses (Similarities Between Length and Speed, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
Barbe-Bleu (Bluebeard, 1938) [colour film] | Directors Jean Painlevé and René Bertrand | Length 13 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 10 October 2021.

Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (Napoléon, 1927)

One of the categories on the BFI Player is dedicated to films appearing in the Sight & Sound poll of critics, and includes several classics, not least the one I’m covering today. Although it’s a grand spectacle, especially with an orchestra backing it up, it probably wouldn’t make my greatest ever list, I’m afraid, but it’s worth watching. Alternatively there are plenty of other films, many of which I’ve reviewed for my Criterion Sundays, like L’avventura, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Faces, Rashomon, The Seventh Seal, et al.


This is maximalist filmmaking. It has an impressionistic feel at times with its lap dissolves and rapid cutting, emphasising mood over clarity (I’ll never quite be sure what tactics were being deployed in the snowball fight scene), but it never shows a great deal of subtlety in its symbolism — the eagle, the waves crashing, the frenzy of the crowd, the guillotine. It’s also never anything less than triumphantly behind its eponymous hero, played as a lank-haired wunderkind by an actor named ‘God’s Gift’ in French (Albert Dieudonné). It has a long third act of romantic entanglements (including an entirely extraneous one with a minor character’s daughter) that drags a bit and yet when the film finishes it feels almost curtailed too early. It reaches — constantly, grandly, excessively — and I can’t really fault it for that, but whether that makes it great art I’m not so sure about. It’s still quite the experience, especially with a full orchestra and the triptych projection at the end.

Napoléon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Abel Gance; Cinematographer Jules Kruger; Starring Albert Dieudonné, Gina Manès, Antonin Artaud, Edmond Van Daële; Length c330 minutes.
Seen at Royal Festival Hall, London, Monday 7 November 2016 (and originally on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, December 1997).

Criterion Sunday 266: The King of Kings (1927)

It is difficult to watch this epic-length life of the Christ without thinking of Hail, Caesar! and its satirical take on the po-faced earnestness of filmmakers trying to render the Biblical story visual. DeMille’s production hasn’t got an ounce of jocularity or self-awareness to it, and to a certain extent that’s just as well, because it’s difficult to approach some of this material without being utterly committed to the solemnity of it all. It feels less like a portrait of Judaea 20 centuries ago as it does a pageant of big iconic scenes, and DeMille spares no effort to have doves fluttering around the important symbols, or have Jesus holding a lamb. Indeed, the campness is high as Jesus is backlit with lights every time he appears, looking like every (Western) portrait of him, all glistening beard and beatific expression (except, briefly, when Simon Peter has renounced him three times and Jesus looks on smugly). There’s some interesting use of very early colour in the opening and during the Resurrection sequences, though the black-and-white is more persuasive and has a real beauty to it at times. There is undoubtedly some great religious art which has been made, even about Jesus, over the years, but this one feels like it’s more for the existing fans, rendering iconic all the famous scenes, without really finding the drama (as say in another Criterion release, The Last Temptation of Christ) or a persuasive sense of how the lived experience might have been back then (as in Life of Brian). Sosin’s score has a grandeur and, for better or worse, largely matches the film’s own storytelling, at times lapsing into a slight kitschiness.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are two discs, and the second has a shortened 112-minute release from 1928, with two separate scores. I haven’t watched that yet, but will update this page when I have.
  • On the first disc, the extras are a few production photos, some from the film’s premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (it was the film chosen as the opening premiere at this new cinema), as well as extensive documentation of the original illustrated programme booklet (both photos and extensive text of the contents), and some telegrams from DeMille to his cast.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Cecil B. DeMille; Writer Jeanie Macpherson; Cinematographers J. Peverell Marley and F.J. Westerberg; Starring H.B. Warner, Ernest Torrence, Jacqueline Logan, Joseph Schildkraut; Length 155 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 October 2019.

Crainquebille (1922) and Some Contemporary Silent Short Films

The Cinema Museum logo As part of the regular monthly ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night, this feature was presented along with a number of short films, with an intermission between them. Piano accompaniment was provided by organisers Lillian Henley and Cyrus Gabrysch for the shorts, and by renowned silent film accompanist and concert pianist Costas Fotopoulos for the feature.


Crainquebille (1922) [France]

The more silent films one watches, the more one realises there’s a huge range of expression beyond the kind of hyperactive slapstick we’ve at length come to associate with the era (though some of the shorts, see below, fulfil this function more than adequately). Instead with this film, we see Belgian director Jacques Feyder expressively try his hand at a kind of proletarian social realism, with moustachioed Maurice de Fléraudy playing an honest working class protagonist ground down by the unfeeling, pettifogging machinations of the authorities. In this respect, it’s not unlike, say, Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), in which a chain of minor events build into tragedy, but the film I’m most minded of is Fassbinder’s Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1971), which also centres on a street peddler pushing around a cart of groceries.

For me, there’s something similar here to the way Fassbinder lays on the incidents and watches his character suffer under their weight. Feyder’s touch is lighter, though, and while things seem bleak at times, it never feels masochistic. The character of Jérôme Crainquebille (or “Bill” in the name given him by the original English-language release of the film) has a largely fatalistic approach to the way he’s treated, first arrested on a false accusation of abusing a bored cop, before being processed through the justice system and eventually released, shunned by his former customers. The scenes in the court, indeed, have an almost farcical quality to them, as we see defence, prosecution and judge respectively amuse themselves, showing little interest in what’s going on before them, and the statue of justice at the front of the courtroom turns and looks accusingly at the poor wretches in the dock.

What elevates the film is the almost naturalistic acting by Féraudy and the other minor characters (shopkeepers, cops, prostitutes and newsboys) who populate this world of street vendors based around the Les Halles market, itself long gone. The set design emphasises the dirt and shabbiness of these lives, punctuated a brief fantasy interlude in which Crainquebille imagines a life in the country, growing his own vegetables rather than selling them from his cart. And while tragedy at times seems inescapable, the film remains affectionate towards its impoverished characters, and allows for a little bit of hope to shine through the gloomy black-and-white.

Crainquebille film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jacques Feyder (based on the novel by Anatole France); Cinematographers Léonce-Henri Burel and Maurice Forster; Starring Maurice de Féraudy; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Wednesday 26 March 2014.

Continue reading “Crainquebille (1922) and Some Contemporary Silent Short Films”