Jean Painlevé

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La Pieuvre
— Jean Painlevé

1928, 35 mm film transfered to HD, black and white, silent, 13 min.
©Les Archives Jean Painlevé/Les Documents cinématographiques, Paris

“I got to know the octopus in the year 1911: I was nine years old and drove with my family to Roscoff, where the marine biology station consisted of a large aquarium that you could gaze into. I was so fascinated that I wanted to study zoology (…) The octopus became the theme of my first publicly screened film in 1927.” (Jean Painlevé1)

Jean Painlevé filmed La Pieuvre (1927–1928) in Port Blanc in Brittany. Influenced by his links with the surrealist art movement, Painlevé and his team developed a filmic visual language that questioned the anthro-pocentric orientation of scientific documentary films. In short sequential scenes, the dramaturgy of the images develops a narrative about octopuses that focuses not only on their anatomy and their abilities, but also raises awareness of the brutal impact humans exercise on their bodies. The filming method itself clearly had an experimental laboratory character. The ambivalence of the human-animal relationship is reflected most clearly in the more surrealist scenes: when an octopus clasps a human skull in an aquarium or slips down from a tree in the open air. On the other hand, the contrasting close ups of octopuses breathing, looking and moving their skin brings their complexity, as yet unfathomed, ever closer to us. Short inserted texts comment on the anatomical similarities between humans and octopuses. All this makes the human treatment of octopus bodies towards the end of the film almost monstrous: a fisherman kills an octopus with his bare hands; an arm is fried on a hob. Painlevé focuses our attention on the individuality and aliveness of octopuses, their environments and their physicality, which have increasingly fallen under human control since the start of the last century.

After a degree in comparative anatomy, Jean Painlevé (1902—1989) joined the avant-garde art and film movement of the 1920s and 1930s and developed innovative photographic techniques to record underwater images together with his partner Geneviève Hamon and their collaborators Maurice Jaubert, Pierre Henry and François de Roubaix. Between 1925 and 1982 they produced over two hundred movies that significantly shaped the scientific documentary film. «L’hippocampe, ou cheval marin» (The Seahorse, 1934) was the first film ever to be shot underwater. In 1930 Painlevé founded the non-profit Institut du cinéma scientifique and the Association for the Photographic and Cinematographic Documentation in Sciences (ADPCS). —

1 © Les Documents cinématographiques, Paris

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