Friday, August 17, 2007

Blood of the Beasts: Franju's Gendered Worlds

Georges Franju's 1949 short Blood of the Beasts, a film usually noted for its grisly documentary footage of Paris' slaughterhouses, sets up from the start a dialectic between two worlds, the strictly masculine world of the abattoirs and the world of the surrounding slums, a sphere that the film links to femininity, which adds additional tension to what would otherwise be a static exposé of the horrific butchering practices at the Vaugiraud Slaughterhouse. This dialectic is established not simply in terms of the settings, the exterior world against the claustrophobic hothouse of the abattoirs, but through the film's use of two narrators, one male and one female, who take two distinct approaches and through the introduction of two differing visual conceptions.

The film begins with a long shot of an empty field in front of a public housing project, visible in the left background of the screen, with a dead tree framed in the left middle-ground, while a female voice (Nicole Ladmiral) begins her narration in a grief-inflected voice that marks her discourse as a sad lament. "On the outskirts of Paris, where the poor children play," she says, setting the scene. As she speaks, a woman, glimpsed only from the back, enters the screen in the right foreground, combining with the female voice to stake out this territory as a distinctly feminine province. The film proceeds with a visual montage of the neighborhood, comprising trains, hawked wares and children at play. Even before we enter the masculine world of the abattoirs that ostensibly represents the film's subject, we get a glimpse of several feminine images. We see an armless statue of a nude woman in a deserted field, we see a close-up of a young woman who, as the camera pulls back, kisses her lover, we see a painting of a piano lesson with a girl being tutored by an older woman. Finally, the narration takes us to the building whose presence dominates the area. "At Porte de Vanues is the Vaugiraud Slaughterhouse," Ladmiral intones, but her narration will not take us inside the doors, her exclusively feminine province is confined to the exterior.

As the camera enters the abattoir, the film's tone suddenly switches. The narration is picked up by a strangely uninflected male voice (Georges Hubert) who brusquely presents us with the instruments of destruction that the workers use on the animals (the pole ax, the captive-bolt pistol). Abandoning the poetic narration of the earlier segment, the film suddenly takes on the tone of an educational film, a straight documentary that draws no judgment on the material it presents. Hubert's narration, despite later picking up a rhetorical flourish or two, maintains, for the most part, a seeming objectivity of tone that guides us through the brutal slaughters (slaughters which render such recent depictions of abattoirs as Fast Food Nation irrelevant) and enhances their brutality through the narrator's seeming indifference. Unlike the lingering poetic images of the exterior sequences, the footage of the slaughters is delivered with the same blunt actuality as the narration. All this serves to insist on the strict masculinity of the slaughterhouse environment, a claustrophobic factory whose inhabitants are confined to the building's interior and the adjoining courtyard and who are never seen outside of this confinement. The one female worker at the slaughterhouse is so obviously intended as a masculine presence (her large size and gruff features contrast conspicuously with the "feminine" women shown in the film's first section) that she is undifferentiated from the other workers in terms of gender, seen strictly as another man. The fact that Franju depicts one female, but presents her in strictly masculine terms, only emphasizes the masculine nature of the slaughterhouse sphere.

The feminine presence returns for two more sequences, once in a brief interlude and once at the film's conclusion, but both times it is depicted as something entirely separate from the masculine interior world. The dialectic between the film's two worlds is only approached directly (though ultimately left unresolved) in one extraordinary sequence that explicitly juxtaposes the interior and exterior spheres. In the middle of a documentary sequence, Georges Hubert informs us that "Henri Fournel can split an ox while the clock strikes noon." We see Fournel, his blade poised at the top of the ox hanging from the ceiling, while he puffs away on a cigarette. Suddenly the narration stops and the ambient noise is eliminated from the soundtrack, replaced by the sole sound of a tolling bell. Franju then cuts to an exterior shot of a public clock, before returning to Fournel. Then, while waiting for the twelve bells to chime, Franju returns us to the exterior, introducing a montage of scenes from the surrounding neighborhood, many exact quotes from the film's first sequence. Finally, the camera returns to Fournel who finishes cutting the ox and the masculine narration and ambient noises resume. By deliberately intercutting images from the exterior world, images we have already been taught to accept as feminine, with the explicitly masculine act of cutting an ox, Franju brings the tension between the two worlds to the film's forefront. That this maneuver fails to resolve this tension (the rest of the film reasserts the two clearly delineated spheres) makes it no less important a gesture at confronting the two gendered conceptions with each other and letting their inherent tensions play out.

The film's conclusion returns us definitively to the feminine world with Nicole Ladmiral leading us away from the slaughterhouse just as she brought us there at the film's opening. Following a shot of two nuns walking outside the abattoir (signaling the switch in gender), Ladmiral intones, "the day is ending. In the pen, the sheep, still agitated, will fall asleep in the silence. They won't hear the gates of their prison closing, nor the Paris-Villette train which sets off after nightfall for the countryside to gather tomorrow's victims." Her pseudo-poetic narration references the slaughter that we have witnessed but, in its vague lyricism, it represents an outsider's conception of the activity, one who has not witnessed the stark brutality of the actual undertaking. As her narration concludes, we are firmly in the world of the exterior as Franju introduces one last photo-montage, shots of townspeople, abandoned fields, a ship on the canal. By both beginning and ending the film with these feminine sequences, Franju creates a sharp contrast with the savage activities that take place within the abattoirs, a contrast that both tempers the harshness of the slaughter and sets up a tense dialectic between two distinct spheres. Although this tension is never resolved, its existence grants an added complexity to what would otherwise stand as a striking, powerful, but ultimately one-dimensional work.

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