The French documentarian Jean Painlevé (1902-1989) made over two hundred short films about natural and scientific phenomena in his lifetime. Many of his films were artful, socially provoking pieces that went far beyond the straightforward reporting of theories and fact. His work was influenced by the aesthetics of Surrealism and the anarchism of Henriette and Augustin Hamon, the parents of Geneviève Hamon, Painlevé’s life partner and frequent collaborator. Painlevé drew on a wealth of cultural artifacts to make his documentaries, from jazz music to modern dance to—yes—fairy tales and folklore.
Painlevé expressed interest in fairy tales early on in his career with an anomalous non-scientific film, Le Barbe Bleu. Released in 1938, this claymation version of Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” was produced in collaboration with sculptor René Bertrand and Bertrand’s children. While Le Barbe Bleu’s plot doesn’t deviate much from Perrault’s story, the film has a farcical tone: according to scholar Jack Zipes, it was created in the style of a comic opera buffa, and includes a Bluebeard with an upturned cerulean mustache lopping off heads with reckless abandon and his bride singing a song to a rosebush about how wonderful it is to be away from her lurid husband.
Painlevé’s nature films also weave in fairy-tale motifs, albeit more subtly. ACERA, or The Witches’ Dance (1972), co-directed by Geneviève Hamon, is about the mating rituals of acera, mollusks that live along the Atlantic shore in France’s Brittany region. In order to attract mates, the acera extend their bodies out of their shells so that the shells hang below them “serving,” as the narrator says, “as a ballast.” They have cape-like appendages that swirl when they move, and when they dance they bob up and down as though they are witches in flight, riding their own shells instead of broomsticks.
But the film’s title references something darker than the charming creatures and their Fantasia-like movements first suggest: wild, devilish dancing was one the charges levied against people tried and executed as witches in early modern Europe, and there’s a fairy-tale type, “The Danced-Out Shoes,” that correlates dancing with deviance. Perhaps the most famous story in this tale type is Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes,” in which a young girl starts dancing in her pair of beloved rouge kicks and then finds that she cannot stop. Even after an executioner cuts off her feet and replaces them with wooden ones, the amputated feet keep dancing on their own. It is only through death that she is able to be free of the dancing shoes.
Hamon and Painlevé didn’t shy away from discussing sexuality and gender in their work and this was, perhaps, inspired by their personal politics. They had an unconventional relationship for mid-20th century France, never marrying and living apart for much of each year. Towards the end of ACERA, or The Witches’ Dance, Hamon and Painlevé tell us that the acera are both male and female, and then show us how they sometimes mate in chains, with the acera in the middle using both sex organs simultaneously. This might be read as straight-up scientific fact, but the directors’ emphasis on it is telling. The film compares acera to witches—historically, people condemned for having, or supposedly having, deviant behavior and sexuality—and then sets their dance to a pretty classical score by Pierre Jansen. It feels like Hamon and Painlevé are celebrating, rather than simply reporting, the acera’s sexuality and gender and, by extension, are also celebrating human queerness.
Painlevé’s “The Vampire,” (1945) also combines nature documentation with folklore to make a politically motivated point. It takes as its subject the South American vampire bat, which can drain the blood from a guinea pig in one sitting and spreads rabies and a strain of sleeping sickness particularly detrimental to horses. “The Vampire” incorporates clips of animals that Painlevé thinks might have inspired the vampire legend and short scenes from the film Nosferatu. At the end, the vampire bat makes a salute with its wing that’s eerily reminiscent of the Nazis’ “Heil Hitler” salute. While it’s a little weird to equate a vampire bat’s ecological predilections with Nazism, the parallel was probably too tempting for Painlevé to ignore. He was, after all, a member of the French Resistance, and spent much of World War II in hiding from the Nazi regime.
Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé (many of which were co-directed or otherwise created with Hamon) is available through the Criterion Collection.
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Leavy, Barbara Fass. In Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gender. New York: New York UP, 1994. Print.
Macdonald, Scott. “Jean Painlevé: Going Beneath the Surface.” The Criterion Collection. The Criterion Collection, 20 Apr. 2009. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Painlevé, Jean, Andy Masaki. Bellows, Marina McDougall, and Brigitte Berg. Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2000. Print.
Zipes, Jack. The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-tale Films. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.