George Franju's 'Le Sang des Betes'
The French director George Franju is best known for the hypnotic and poetic horror movie Eyes without a Face, but he was also a remarkable documentary filmmaker; his 1949 study of a Parisian abattoir, Le Sang des Bêtes, is one of the most haunting and visually exciting documentary films ever made.
Many filmmakers have shot scenes or complete films in slaughterhouses, but what distinguishes Franju's film is its heightened aesthetics and its utter lack of sentiment. The film is quite simply sublime, in its truest sense. It has a beauty that excites pity and terror. Much of the film would be unwatchable if it were shot in color, but in black and white, it becomes a study of textures, movement and light. There are glistening rivers of dark blood, steaming carcasses, radiant white offal--and most striking of all, the post-mortem dance of the slaughtered animals. There is a scene towards the end of the film showing the wriggling and twitching of a half-dozen freshly decapitated lambs that resembles the choreography in a Hollywood musical. It is one of the strangest, most beguiling images I've ever seen.
The film is a real documentary, and all those impossibly strange moments are contextualized. Franju opens the film with a sequence exploring the eerie neighborhood around the abattoir in images and framings inspired by the photographer Atget. And, during the course of the film, he frequently lets us out of the abattoir to glimpse the life going on around it. There are nuns in wimples scurrying around outside, children playing, lovers kissing.
The film is quietly, discreetly informative. We get to see how the abattoir has shaped the area around it, creating an infrastructure all for itself: There are picturesque little bridges over the River Seine to herd the condemned animals into the slaughterhouse, and a canal that is hidden from view, so it seems as though the gliding ships are cutting through the land.
Franju also shows us--even celebrates--the artistry of the slaughterers who take considerable pride in their work. We also have to reckon with its physical cost, as many limp and stoop as they go about their gory tasks. In one sequence, a butcher splits an ox in half and measures his progress against the chiming of a church bell at midday, which Franju duly intercuts with an image of the bell itself and aerial points of view from the church's steeple.
The film, then, is only partly observational. Like all great documentary filmmakers, Franju is both a dramatist and an unashamed creator of images. Some of the scenes are clearly orchestrated by the filmmaker; this doesn't make them false or dishonest, but brings to mind Frederick Wiseman's later description of his own work as "reality fictions." All of us who make documentary films are shaping what we see to find a story and a truth, and it has always seemed to me that we can and should design images and frames that can serve that purpose.
As a species, we enslave and kill other species for sustenance. Franju presents this fact without judgment or sentiment in Le Sang des Bêtes, and he finds a world of poetry and beauty to mediate that stark, hard truth.
Le Sang des Betes is available through The Criterion Collection.
James Marsh is the Academy Award-winning director of Man on Wire.