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.

Global Cinema 11: Azerbaijan – By the Bluest of Seas (1936)

As a former Soviet Socialist Republic, Azerbaijan has had some past form as a cinema-producing nation, though it’s never made as much of a world impact as say Georgian or even Armenian cinema. Therefore, for my Global Cinema entry this week I’ve gone back to Soviet times, to Boris Barnet’s well-regarded film set on and near the Caspian Sea, which plays an important part in the country’s identity.


Azerbaijani flagRepublic of Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan)
population 10,127,900 | capital Baku (Bakı) (2.15m) | largest cities Baku, Sumqayit (325k), Ganja (323k), Mingachevir (100k), Lankaran (85k) | area 86,600 km2 | religion Islam (97%) | official language Azerbaijani (Azərbaycan dili) | major ethnicity Azerbaijani (92%) | currency Manat (₼) [AZN] | internet .az

A Eurasian country in the South Caucasus, it sits alongside the Caspian Sea, with mountains the north and plains inland, and an exclave to the west (Nakhchivan), cut off by neighbouring Armenia. It also includes a contested territory, the Republic of Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabakh), of primarily Armenian ethnicity, which has its own government but is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. The name derives from the Persian satrap Atropates, who ruled around the time of Alexander the Great, which is itself a transliteration of Old Iranian for “Land of the Holy Fire”, and while the name evolved over millennia, it was only first applied to the region in the 20th century. The earliest settlement dates to the Stone Age, with Scythians and Medes arriving to create their own empires, merged into the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE. Subsequent Sasanian Empire rule gave way to the Umayyads, then Turkic rule from the 11th century. A number of dynasties, many Persian, competed for control over the following millennium until the Russians invaded in the early-19th century. When that Empire collapsed, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was declared in 1918, though it was invaded again due to its strategically important oil and made an SSR in 1920. It declared independence in 1991, celebrated as 18 October. It has an elected President, who forms the Cabinet and appoints a Prime Minister.

The earliest films were made in the country in 1898 in the capital Baku, a prosperous oil town. A steady number of productions were made in successive decades, particularly after it became an SSR under Soviet control, though never more than a handful each year given its small size and the small number of cinema screens.


У самого синего моря U samogo sinego morya (By the Bluest of Seas, 1936)

The blue sea of this film’s title is the Caspian, and the film concerns two strapping young men who are shipwrecked and taken in by a seaside kolkhoz in Azerbaijan only to fall in love with the commune’s leader Masha (Yelena Kuzmina). It’s a very simple set-up, but there’s something engaging about director Boris Barnet’s way with waves, which seem to frame much of the film’s action, whether crashing over fishing boats, dragging away comrades to their (apparent) deaths, or just in the backdrop of the landborne action. The simple competition between these two men drives the film, one a tall blonde muscular heroic type (Nikolai Kryuchkov) and the other and native Azeri (Lev Sverdlin), shorter and solidly-built — though hardly unattractive either (Soviet or not, this is still the movies). Their aims are of course noble, and when they fall out it’s over their lack of commitment to the collective (with a side order of trying to impugn the other in the eyes of Masha), but the rivalry remains that of two friends, and when the final decision is made, it reminds you that it’s not just the men’s feelings which are at stake.

By the Bluest of Seas film posterCREDITS
Director Boris Barnet Бори́с Ба́рнет; Writer Klimentiy Mints Климентий Минц; Cinematographer Mikhail Kirillov Михаи́л Кири́ллов; Starring Yelena Kuzmina Еле́на Кузьмина́, Nikolai Kryuchkov Николай Крючко́в, Lev Sverdlin Лев Све́рдлин; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Wednesday 22 July 2020.

Three Films from the 1930s by Mikio Naruse: Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935), The Road I Travel with You (1936) and Avalanche (1937)

There’s a lot of great Japanese cinema of the past and most of the famous names kept up a prodigious output of films, of which only a handful of ‘masterworks’ tend to get any kind of release (at least in the West). The great director Mikio Naruse, for example, has one film in the Criterion collection (1960’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) as well as an Eclipse boxset of his four surviving silent films from the early-1930s, but otherwise is only known for a few 1950s films like Sound of the Mountain and Floating Clouds. However, given he made around 3-5 films every year, as you can see on his filmography, there’s a lot to watch and very few places to do so. Luckily, some kind soul has thought to upload a number of them to YouTube, albeit in fairly poor video quality (presumably from VHS rips), of which I’ve already reviewed one film, the biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (1936). I would love to see Naruse’s work on the big screen in a retrospective, but even Kurosawa rarely gets this kind of treatment so I suspect my chance to do so will be a long time coming (if I haven’t missed it already). In the meantime, here are a few of those 1930s sound films.

Continue reading “Three Films from the 1930s by Mikio Naruse: Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935), The Road I Travel with You (1936) and Avalanche (1937)”

Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)

While there are a huge number of recent biopics I can (and have) reviewed recently during this themed week on the genre, they have also had popularity throughout the history of cinema, and in many other parts of the world. Today I am focusing on two Japanese examples I watched more or less back-to-back this past year, both of which are concerned with artists, and are made by among the better directors of Japanese cinema, Naruse and Mizoguchi.

Continue reading “Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)”

Criterion Sunday 239: The Lower Depths (1936/1957)

I am perhaps missing something, but Renoir somehow contrives to make this story of the poorest in society seem like another of his genteel comedies of etiquette and civility, a twirl through upper-class society mores but with shabbier clothes and fewer prospects. It certainly doesn’t feel like something based on a Russian source, but then perhaps in 1936 that’s not the kind of story that was needed. The poor and the rich are just part of a continuum perhaps, all on the same level, and certainly the Baron character moves swiftly and easily between the two. Still, not much seems particularly convincing, though Gabin remains a watchable screen presence in the lead role as a likeable thief.

A few decades later and Kurosawa’s take on Gorky’s slum-set drama really gets the sense of grinding poverty that eluded Renoir, I think. That said, by this point, Mifune’s scowling renegade character seems a little weary, barking at all the other characters in the way that hardly ingratiates him as a charismatic centre. No, instead this film is really about all the other flophouse inhabitants, each of whom has their various intersecting thing going on (and reminds me a little of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana). To be honest, none of it ever really held me, but Kurosawa has a way with the camera and the staging that remains impressive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936)
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Yevgeni Zamyatin Евге́ний Замя́тин, Jacques Companéez, Renoir and Charles Spaak (based on the play На дне Na dne by Maxim Gorky Макси́м Го́рький); Cinematographer Fédote Bourgasoff Федор БУРГАСОВ; Starring Jean Gabin, Suzy Prim, Louis Jouvet; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 11 February 2019.

どん底 Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957)
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Hideo Oguni 小国 英雄 and Kurosawa (based on the play На дне Na dne by Maxim Gorky Макси́м Го́рький); Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki 山崎市雄; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船 敏郎, Kyoko Kagawa 香川 京子, Isuzu Yamada 山田 五十鈴; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 14 February 2019.

Criterion Sunday 114: My Man Godfrey (1936)

All of a sudden the Criterion Collection seemed to become interested in 1930s screwball comedy with a number of fine Preston Sturges films, and alongside them this example from director Gregory La Cava, a somewhat underrated director responsible for the very odd Gabriel Over the White House (1933). His political viewpoint seems to come from FDR’s New Deal following the Depression, and there are fascinating ideological contortions at work, as an initial setup criticising the way capitalism reifies and recycles human beings ultimately gives way to a upper-class family-based knockabout comedy. The operation of class in the USA is always there in the background, even if it’s never clearer than in the opening sequence, as the imperious socialite Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and her ditzier sister Irene (Carole Lombard), both from a wealthy family, visit a bridge to grab a homeless man, Godfrey (William Powell). This is all in pursuit of a game they’re playing with their aristocratic friends, whereby they get points for parading him as a prize. Yet Godfrey turns out to be a quick wit and scrubs up nicely, so Irene hires him as the family’s butler, promptly falling in love with him too. That’s largely how things proceed, as further reversals of fortune take place, and it becomes apparent that Godfrey is not what he initially seemed. Still, it’s all great fun, and Powell is a compelling screen presence.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory La Cava; Writers Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind (based on Hatch’s novel 1101 Park Avenue); Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff; Starring William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 19 August 2016, and since then at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 8 February 2017.