Moving Sealife – Films by Jean Painlevé

These four films by Jean Painlevé will immerse you in a mysterious underwater world full of surrealist shapes, tentacles, feelers, spines and other protuberances. Preceded by live music performed by Matteo Mijderwijk.

Jean Painlevé (1902-1989) was a French filmmaker. Underwater, he filmed organisms moving elegantly, making sudden movements, grasping, vibrating, swirling or contracting. Painlevé’s scientific attitude and sense of aestheticism marvellously coalesced in his films. They reflect the art of nature: its poetry, mystery and unfathomableness. It is this tension between what can be known and what can only be wondered at which makes his work so special.

Painlevé was introduced to surrealism when he became involved in the avant-garde circles of Paris in the mid-twenties. He felt that nature, too, abounded in alienating and dreamlike scenes.

Avant-garde music was an important source of inspiration for his films. Matteo Mijderwijk (organ and piano) wrote a thrilling composition which he will perform live before the screening of the films.


Histoire de crevettes (Shrimp Stories) (1964, 13’,35mm, colour/sound) (music by Pierre Conté)
Painlevé often returned to favourite subjects he had dealt with in the late twenties. Shrimp Stories is one of them. To this otherwise serious film Painlevé added a prologue in which he casts a lab assistent at the marine biology station in Roscoff as Groucho Marx.

Comment naissent des méduses (How some Jellyfish are Born) (1960, 14’,35mm, b&w/sound) (music by Pierre Conté)
Jellyfish are born from a clump of algae. Thanks to high-speed camera techniques things become visible which we would not be able to see with the naked eye.

Transition de phase dans les cristaux liquides (Transition in Liquid Crystals)  (1978, 7’,35mm, colour/sound) (music by François de Roubaix)
An abstract interplay of changing colours and shapes. Liquid crystals are sensitive to changes in temperature and pressure. With the use of polarised light, we can witness the colour transformation in liquid crystals.

L'hippocampe (The Sea Horse) (1934, 13’, 35mm, b&w/sound) (music by Darius Milhaud)
Painlevé filmed the movement and reproduction of the extraordinary seahorse. Topped off by a comical surprise.

Film stills from Jean Painlevé's Shrimp Stories, The Seahorse and How Some Jellyfish Are Born  © 2017 Archives by Jean Painlevé, Paris. All images courtesy of Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris.