Mental Floss

Watch This Surrealism-Inspired Nature Documentary From the 1960s

Anna Green
Flike, Youtube
Flike, Youtube / Flike, Youtube

Jean Painlevé was a filmmaker and biologist famous for the nature documentaries he produced from the 1920s through the ‘70s. He made films about microscopic fish eggs, vampire bats, sea horses, octopuses, and a range of other animals. But though Painlevé’s subject matter was the stuff of traditional nature documentaries, his narration and art direction certainly weren’t. 

In the 1920s, the young biologist became enamored with the French surrealist movement, and when he started directing his own films in 1927, the influence of surrealism on his work was clear. Painlevé eschewed the detached scientific narration that characterized most nature documentaries. Instead, he was an entertainer and artist—his films were highly stylized, his narration dramatic, and his descriptions of animal habits unapologetically anthropomorphic.

Sometimes, he described the animals in his films in human terms—they work, they court, they seduce each other, they fall in love. Other times, he emphasized their strangeness. In 1967's The Love Life of an Octopusfor instance, the sea creatures are compared to monsters, their strange habits marveled over. 

Painlevé might have been a scientist, but he wasn’t interested in objectivity—his credo was “Science is Fiction.” Check The Love Life of an Octopus below (click on the CC button for English subtitles):