Forever an advocate of the superiority of nature over the artifice of film – a reaction to the strict aesthetic formulae being preached by Eisenstein, Bazin, and Griffith — Jean Painlevé’s oeuvre can only be classified as a genre unto itself: scientific-poetic cinema. In explaining the lifecycle of the seahorse, Painlevé narration imbues his subjects with personality, character, and a sense of humor. His tendency to anthropomorphize rendered the material infinitely more approachable, which explains the success of his films in a category that’s infamous for having a sleep-inducing effect on students. Without relying on trick photography or unnecessary camera manipulation, L’hippocampe captures the surreal almost mystical attributes of its photogenic subjects, presenting them as abstract entities worthy of their own kind of aesthetic contemplation. This methodology endows the sequence of images with a tactile plasticity, reminiscent of puppet theatres and dioramas. This transforms the screen into a veritable window against which we long to press our faces, as if at an aquarium. It was this insight – that we find reality, as mediated by the camera, to be as entrancing as fiction – that led Painlevé to the radical distillation of his philosophy: “science is fiction.”
Spurned by the scientific community and wrongly pigeonholed as a surrealist filmmaker, Painlevé’s split allegiance between the observable world and that which lies hidden behind the veil of consciousness accounts for the unique charm of his vision of nature’s minutiae. His films showcase what Paul Klee could only dream of capturing with his brush. Yet Painlevé’s enthusiasm for the natural world bordered on a kind of religious fanaticism, as evidenced by the penetrating close-ups and tight mise en scène that characterizes nearly all of his shorts. For Painlevé, a vocal anarchist and atheist, the process of documentary production was a religious undertaking in its own right, one akin to baptism, only rooted in the physical rather than the spiritual realm: “wading around in water up to your ankles or navel, [. . .] getting hypnotized by a sinister pond where everything seems to promise marvels although nothing lives there, this is the ecstasy of any addict.” It is this palpable sense of awe, tempered by Painlevé’s light take on the educational film, that explains the enduring magical allure of L’hippocampe.