An archive-based, in-depth analysis of the surreal nature and science movies of the pioneering French filmmaker Jean Painlevé
Before Jacques-Yves Cousteau, there was Jean Painlevé, a pioneering French scientific and nature filmmaker with a Surrealist’s eye. Creator of more than two hundred films, his studies of strange animal worlds doubled as critical reimaginations of humanity. With an unerring eye for the uncanny and unexpected, Painlevé and his assistant Geneviève Hamon captured oneiric octopuses, metamorphic crustaceans, erotic seahorses, mythic vampire bats, and insatiable predatory insects.
Zoological Surrealism draws from Painlevé’s early oeuvre to rethink the entangled histories of cinema, Surrealism, and scientific research in interwar France. Delving deeply into Painlevé’s archive, James Leo Cahill develops an account of “cinema’s Copernican vocation”—how it was used to forge new scientific discoveries while also displacing and critiquing anthropocentric viewpoints.
From Painlevé’s engagements with Sergei Eisenstein, Georges Franju, and competing Surrealists to the historiographical dimensions of Jean Vigo’s concept of social cinema, Zoological Surrealism taps never-before-examined sources to offer a completely original perspective on a cutting-edge filmmaker. The first extensive English-language study of Painlevé’s early films and their contexts, it adds important new insight to our understanding of film while also contributing to contemporary investigations of the increasingly surreal landscapes of climate change and ecological emergency.