Born the same year that Georges Méliès took cinema to the moon, the French filmmaker Jean Painlevé (1902-1989) trained his camera on an equally alien world: the one beneath the water’s surface. In Painlevé’s films and photographs, sea creatures rise from obscurity in exquisite detail. A lobster claw reaches forth from the soupy black, as if to shake the viewer’s hand; microscopic bristles on a shrimp’s nose ripple in glittering waves, abstracted by their magnification. In The Daphnia (1928), the filmmaker zooms in on a country stream in search of the common water flea. One of Painlevé’s last silent films, Daphnia is a journey from the macro to the micro interspersed with factual title cards that ground its far-out visuals. To viewers who have never given so much as a passing thought to the water flea, it comes as a revelation; the bug in fact shoots like tiny stars through a constellation of miniature organisms, its antennae branching out like the trail of the comet in Red Grooms’s Meliès homage, Shoot the Moon (1982). Magnified 150,000 times, this swirling universe is at once bizarre and mesmerizing, chock full of existential drama as the flea dodges death in the form of the Hydra.

Painlevé was perhaps inclined to view the world through such a defamiliarized lens. As the son of Paul Painlevé, the mathematician and controversial former Prime Minister of France, Jean grew up estranged from his peers, ever identifying as an outsider. In opposition to his father’s politics, the young Painlevé became an outspoken anarchist who co-founded a Communist student group in his late teens before being expelled from the party. As a young man, he chafed against authority, and dropped out of medical school after clashing with a professor with whom he disagreed on moral grounds. Painlevé only gained a stable academic footing after he began studying comparative anatomy at the Sorbonne, where two founders of Surrealism, André Breton and Louis Aragon, had (not so coincidentally) studied with the same professors only a few years prior. It was there that his career as a filmmaker began.

Jean Painlevé, “Female seahorse”(c. 1934-1935) solarised gelatin silver print

Jean Painlevé’s first major museum retrospective in France, now on view at the Jeu de Paume, reveals this connective tissue, which links the French Surrealist movement to the realm of science. As Painlevé’s work demonstrates, there are clear parallels between scientific and artistic observation; James Leo Cahill, in Zoological Surrealism: The Nonhuman Cinema of Jean Painlevé, asserts, “It is at the dissection table that the first exquisite corpses of Surrealism were born.” The professors in the Sorbonne’s anatomy program initiated figures like Painlevé, Bréton, and Aragon “into a very particular practice of seeing,” one that trained them in “dissecting, comparative thinking, and imaginative reassembly.” The young Surrealists took this training a step further, applying it not only to their observations, but also to their depictions of the world, rendering it in an entirely new light. Scientific dissection thus became artistic creation.

Yet while Bréton’s creative output centered on dreams and the unconscious, Painlevé supported Yvan Goll’s competing vision of the Surrealist movement, which argued that Surrealism was the “transposition of reality onto a higher (artistic) plane.” Painlevé seems to have followed this philosophy long after Bréton’s thinking triumphed: in “Les pieds dans l’eau” (1935) — the article after which the Jeu de Paume show is named — Painlevé describes how he tirelessly strives to “obtain images that are as clear and demonstrative as possible in conditions identical or very close to reality.” Rather than constructing dreamlike visuals that seek to reveal something of the human mind, the surreality of Painlevé’s films stems from the strangeness of reality itself — the foreign rituals of aquatic creatures, the unfamiliar geometries of their microscopic anatomy.

In The Sea Horse (1933), Painlevé’s most successful film, a male sea horse labors over the birth of hundreds of translucent, confetti-like children that burst from the darkness of his pouch into life. The voiceover explains the seahorse’s anatomical makeup and ascribes a “slightly pompous air” to the species, describing its ornate, “medieval appearance” — making aesthetic and objective observations in equal measure. The film is at once a scientific document, an educational illustration, a subtle political commentary, and a work of art, illuminating the unseen dance of life in the ocean’s foreshore. However, this is not a reality that one could easily experience on a trip to the beach; while the crispness of Painlevé’s filmmaking certainly approximates vision, it augments reality through artful lighting, composition, and commentary. Even in today’s media-saturated world, it is rare to see sea creatures quite like this, with each frame carefully composed in a balance between black and shimmering white.

Jean Painlevé, “Acera dancing, or the woman with a Renaissance ruff” [Acera or the Witches’ Dance] (c. 1972), vintage color print

There is a magic to these films that never fades, even in Painlevé’s later work. The otherworldliness of Acera or the Witches’ Dance (1978), co-created with his life partner and constant collaborator, Geneviève Hamon, is only amplified by the addition of color: the tan, fleshy skirts of the Acera make them resemble floating slugs under a blue-tinged canopy of stars. Rapid cross-cuts intersperse footage of a dancer’s swirling dress, drawing an almost subliminal parallel between the motions of the mollusk and those of the human performer. Painlevé’s films are a visual treat, even for the most jaded viewer.

Jean Painlevé: Feet in the Water continues at the Jeu de Palme (1 Place de la Concorde, Paris) until September 18th.

Julia Curl is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University. Her research focuses on avant-garde film and photography, particularly in relationship to literature. She...