(31/07/07) – Jean Painlevé was an enigmatic figure. A predecessor of nature documentarists such as Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough, his surrealist leanings and unwillingness to compromise produced films of startling originality.

The son of Paul Painlevé, renowned mathematician and twice Prime Minister of France, Jean showed a passion for nature at an early age, forsaking the trappings of French high society in favour of a career amongst aquatic life forms.

To label these shorts ‘science films’ is to underestimate their aesthetic and artistic merits. Likewise, to separate them from their natural origins as documents of marine life and to view them solely as artistic statements by an accomplished filmmaker negates Painlevé’s achievement in the field of natural history. Better then to see the films as an extension of the man himself; defying categorisation and utterly original.

Science is Fiction gathers together some of the director’s most famous films, including The Seahorse, Acera or The Witches Dance and the beguiling Hyas and Stenorhynchus. In a collection that spans 1929 to 1978 (1927’s Methusalem, a black and white silent film that was shot as background projection for Ivan Goll’s surreal play and featuring Antonin Artaud and Painlevé, is also included. As is the René Bertrand’s 1938 animated film, Blue Beard, which Painlevé produced), Painlevé’s technical virtuosity is evident throughout. He built most of the equipment he used to shoot his subjects (as evinced by the shot of him on the DVD’s cover) and the results are astonishing.

The satiric asides and poetry of the films prevent the anthropomorphism of many pieces from descending into the mawkish sentimentality that has marred more recent ‘nature’ films, from Disney animations to the excesses of March of the Penguins. The musical scores also offer a contrast, often belying the beauty of a shot. Painlevé’s willingness to experiment with his soundtracks resulted in collaborations with major figures in the musical avant-garde, not to mention Duke Ellington.

An accompanying documentary links Painlevé’s films to the earlier work of naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre and the chronophotography of Etienne-Jules Marey. A further link is provided by the inclusion of Percy Smith’s pioneering films, The Birth of a Flower (1910) and The Strength and Agility of Insects (1911), as well as footage of life on the Thames during the 30s (The Thames in Colour, 1935).

The additional disc presents an aural re-interpretation of Painlevé’s films by Yo La Tengo. A modern reading might be expected to acknowledge anachronisms in the way Painlevé presented his subjects. For the most part, Yo La Tengo remain faithful to the spirit of Painlevé’s endeavour. Their score excels when exploring the wondrous beauty of these worlds. Sea Urchins drifts between Brian Eno’s ‘Music for Films’ and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’, whereas Liquid Crystals, with its chaotic imagery of fractals merging and multiplying, feels like Yo La Tengo’s ruminative party has been gate-crashed by John Zorn. The Love Life of the Octopus works best, with the group capturing the sly and threatening movement of Painlevé’s beast. Only the humour of the original recordings is missing, their quirky sounds hinting at the eccentricity of this remarkable filmmaker.