The next day Artaud took me to see a friend of his who was in Paris for a few weeks, Jean Painlevé. The man had both filmed and co-starred with Artaud in a cinematic snippet in 1927, Mathuselam or the Eternal Bourgeois, which was interspersed with the live performance of a play of the same name. He was the son of the former Prime Minister, Paul Painlevé, who was also a prominent mathematician. Jean Painlevé, however, had none of his father’s gifts for mathematics and this had hampered his studies in science. He was a plain man with a rather lopsided, thin mouth and steady, almost dead dark eyes, yet like Artaud he was obstinate and imaginative and disdainful of commercial cinema.
After abandoning his hopes to enter the École Polytechnique he had turned to, then abandoned, medicine. “I could not stand how my professor treated a hydroencephalic patient during a demonstration,” Painlevé told me as he set up his small film projector in this makeshift studio. The apartment was in the basement of the French Postal Services building in Montparnasse, and he had turned his bathtub into an aquarium. He had another studio, larger, on the coast of Brittany and was to return there soon. “It was mean. I walked out of class and never returned.” Instead he had moved on to biology, studying at the Sorbonne.
Now Painlevé filmed marine animals in their environment, no easy task—it required him to design a custom waterproof box with a front glass plate that allowed the camera lens to extend through it. His results were amazing. With his lens he captured a contradictory cosmos in which male seahorses carried embryos, twig-looking animals walked, and mating looked more like consentual murder. Using slow motion, sped-up footage, and blurring techniques, he captured the movements and behavior of crabs, octopi, sea horses and crustaceans, producing short documentary films that were meant to be entertaining as well as educational. For this his work was denounced as vulgar by French science lovers but lauded by the Surrealists and by Artaud. In his intertitles Painlevé also ascribed emotions to the animals, which earned him criticism as well. “People want to believe humans are unique,” he said, stringing the last film short through the projector. “But if we do not grant emotions to other creatures, we cannot appreciate anything around us.”
“All things feel,” I quoted Pythagoras.
“You see?” Artaud said in approval, pointing at me. We had to sit on the floor, for there were no chairs.
The final film we watched was his short on sea urchins, which showed up close the creature’s delicate, amazing array of spines all moving independently, allowing it to burrow back into the sand when released. “That’s me,” I joked, “that’s what I want to do! And that would not make me an ostrich, because to the sea urchin it is the air that is the foreign world.”
“Before this, he said he wanted to be an earthworm,” Artaud informed a delighted Painlevé.
“Or a leech?” Painlevé continued his underwater theme.
I shuddered. “Ugh, no.”
“That would be challenging to film,” Painlevé mused as he turned off his projector light. He rethreaded the film to rewind it. “Earthworms, tunneling.”
“Or roots growing,” I added. “I could grow an indoor garden in a glass box to film carrots.”
“Those carrots you grew at the rue Blomet were the most grotesque I’d ever seen,” Artaud declared. He added to Painlevé, “They were yellow with bumps, and because the ground was rocky they came out twisted. One, I swear, looked like a cock and balls. Landis tried to shellac them but they rotted from within.”
Letting his film rewind, Painlevé laughed and pointed at him. “You should have told me about that then! I would have filmed that in time-lapse.” For some reason his words made me think of the film Vampyr again. I was impatient to see it. Reportedly there was a decomposition scene with very good special effects, but the Berlin audience had booed the film on opening night.
“Are you ever going to show Mathuselam again?” I asked Artaud.
“What is the point without the play? It’s mere fragments.”
“I liked it as much as Entr’acte,” I said. In it Artaud wore a priest’s costume and walked behind a hearse, leading a double-line of bickering mourners riding scooters.
“I have it at my studio in Brittany. I’ll retrieve it for you sometime.” Painlevé took off the reel and placed it in its canister. “But the best parts of Mathuselam were never filmed, and never performed on stage! When we were shooting southwest of Paris two stupid nuns leading a bunch of little girls came up to Artaud. One of them—Christ, she looked like a hedgehog in a grey sheet! She seized his hand—I think the Church instills a hand fetish—and kneeled down to kiss his ring, so he brandished his crucifix and yelled, ‘Get away, daughters of Satan!’ And they all ran away.”
We burst into laughter. When I could get my breath I said, “Yes, too bad you didn’t film that. In fact,” I said, turning to Artaud, “what I would really like to see is you insulting Benjamin Péret while dressed as a priest.”
Artaud shook his head. “I looked for him! When we returned to Paris I tried to find Péret to dare him to insult me.”
“It’s true,” added the filmmaker. “We went into all the cafés near Pigalle, one by one, looking for him. In and out of the Flore and the Deux-Magots, the Prophete, weaving in and out of the terrasses with people gawking back at us. I should have filmed that. Someone finally asked who the Father was looking for and he said, ‘Christ’s cock! Or else communion is off!’ It was hysterical.” We laughed again. “But Péret hid. He won’t admit it of course, but he hid from Artaud.” Hearing this I hid my smile, for Artaud now looked supremely insulted at the snub. Péret was a crafty one, all right. Artaud could be a little too straightforward for his own good.