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The Pick: Jean Painlevé’s hypnotic underwater films, accompanied live by Yo La Tengo

In 1930, a silent science film documenting skeleton shrimp and sea spiders screened in Paris, earning accolades from painter Marc Chagall, who called it “genuine art,” and artist Fernand Léger, who said it was the loveliest ballet he’d ever seen (he would know). The film was by French Surrealist director Jean Painlevé, who spent the better part of the 20th century shooting some of the most dazzling underwater footage ever committed to film (when he wasn’t hobnobbing with Luis Buñuel and Jean Vigo). In 2002, indie darlings Yo La Tengo recorded The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, an original soundtrack for 11 of Painlevé’s short films; this Saturday, at the closing gala for the Images Festival, the band will be performing the score live to accompany a screening of Painlevé’s work.

Painlevé’s films were among the first to unite science and art. Sure, they’re documentaries—following a stickleback’s egg from fertilization to hatching, say, or examining the effect of temperature on liquid crystals. But they’re also unabashedly visual works of avant-garde cinema—his camera swoops in for ultra-closeups, transforming the crystals into a kaleidoscopic graphic, and pans across the undulating tentacles of a bright orange sea urchin. A 1972 film following the mating practices of sea mollusks is a delicate dance, their bodies floating gracefully around them. Yo La Tengo’s wordless score, meanwhile, is haunting, packed with lush, moody tones and shimmering percussion.

The films are breathtaking to look at, but even more wondrous is their defamiliarizing effect: a slimy grub takes on ethereal beauty and grace; the sea urchin becomes a textured, dramatic splash of colour and movement. It’s jarringly intimate, too, as the various reproductive habits of the creatures (some of them hermaphrodites) take on a strangely sexual character under Painlevé’s lingering, slightly lecherous lens. It’s odd and unsettling—but no less hypnotic for that.

N.B.: Advance tickets for this event are sold out, but there will be tickets available at the door.

The details: April 21, 8 p.m. $30. Toronto Underground Cinema, 186 Spadina Ave., 647-348-3420, imagesfestival.com

 

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