‘Science is Fiction’: The Fanciful Films of Jean Painlevé

Reported by Raleigh McElvery ’16

seahorse - science is fiction. jean painlevé.

With subjects ranging from regal seahorses to scheming mollusks to “horrific” octopi, biologist and filmmaker Jean Painlevé merged science and fantasy, creating films that informed viewers about the natural world and captured their imaginations.

Five of Painlevé’s films from the 1930s-70s were recently screened at Bowdoin as part of the documentary film course “The Reality Effect,” taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of Film Studies Sarah Childress. The films were presented in conjunction with the exhibition Under the Surface: Surrealist Photography, on display at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art through June 1.

Childress led a discussion about the films along with Laboratory Instructor of Biology at Kent Island Janet Gannon, Animal Care Supervisor Marko Melendy, and Curatorial Assistant Andrea Rosen of the Museum of Art. The presenters pointed out and discussed some of the ways in which Painlevé created surreal portrayals of real-life phenomena.

The Witches’ Dance, for instance, depicted slug-like mollusks performing graceful dances accompanied by a ghostly soundtrack. The Seahorse included footage of a male seahorse’s “expression of anguish” as it gave birth to dozens of tiny offspring. The Love Life of the Octopus, which portrayed its title character as “a horrific creature,” included a sequence where the male became “white with fear at the female’s advances.”

While Painlevé incorporated anthropomorphic elements in his films to make his subjects relatable, Childress said, he did not portray his subjects as being exactly like people. “He definitely wanted to dispel the idea of anthropocentrism,” she said, noting that Painlevé’s work illustrates a notion that “nature is full of different kinds of intelligence and relationships that are just as sophisticated as our own.”

Painlevé often created multiple versions of each film, including versions aimed at fellow scientists. The fanciful interpretations of reality in his “pop sci” films allowed him to connect with an audience of nonscientists, bringing attention to subjects that are often overlooked. “He makes the small and insignificant seem super significant,” Childress said. “There’s a sense that these creatures can teach us a lot about ourselves and our world.”

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