Tag Archives: France

Lasting psychic wounds of counterinsurgency and torturing


 

THE WOUND by Laurent Mauvignier

 

 

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[Rating: 4.8/5]

Pros: searing


Cons: searing

 

Laurent Mauvignier’s 2009 Des Hommes (Some Men, translated by David and Nicole Ball as The Wound) is a haunted and haunting novel. Mauvignier was born in 1967, after France gave up compelling Algeria to remain a subordinate part of the country (in the Evian Accords of 1962).


The novel open in rural France ca. 2002 at the retirement party of Solange, Her derelict/drunkard (but not homeless) brother Bertrand, a veteran of the French army in the Algerian conflict, now generally called “Feu-de-Bois” (wood smoke) embarrasses her and outrages his other siblings by giving her an expensive jeweled brooch. Family dynamics (dysfunctions) will be revealed over the course of the four parts (afternoon, evening, night, morning) of the novel—with the longest part (night) heavy on flashbacks. The narrator, who was also drafted and sent to Algeria, Rabut, is Bertrand’s cousin and not lacking in a guilty conscience and PTSD sleep disturbances.

Rabut wishes he was not related to Bertrand, and, still more, was unfamiliar with the atrocities committed by and against the French in Algeria. What emerges with Faulknerian indirection (if in simpler syntax) is a searing portrayal of racism, torture, and the insecurities of counter-insurgency (with an invisible enemy easily mistaken for visible noncombatants), along with an awareness that occupation of France (by Germany) was resented and feared much as the French counterinsurgency in Algeria was.

Rabut has a cache of photographs he took in Algeria (he has taken no photos since his return), just as Mauvignier’s father (who served 28 months in Algeria did). Mauvignier told Julian Bisson (in an interview published in France Today): “My mother used to show me pictures my father took in Algeria, where he was stationed for 28 months. In these photos there was no sign of war, or of the violence my mother would talk about. They were almost like holiday pictures, with smiling kids, nice landscapes, sun, the city of Oran. But when my father committed suicide, the question began to gnaw at me: Did the Algerian war have something to do with it? If so, who will speak about what has been silenced? What is it that has been silenced?”


It does not take much imagination to transfer the story from rural France and Algeria to the rural US and Iraq (and only a bit more to the rural US and Vietnam). Rabut and, even more so, Bertrand fail to suppress memories of atrocities (committed by both sides) in which they were involved and knowledge of France’s abandonment of the Arabs and Berbers who fought in the ranks of the colonial army (I would especially like to forget knowing of one form of retaliation against “collaborators” that Rabut recalls!).

The book is not a very easy read, not because of its syntax, but because the reader must put the pieces of what happened (and is happening in the 24-hours of the present day) together. Nick Flynn (who worked in a Boston homeless shelter into which his father came: recalled in a memoir filmed at “Being Flynn” and in the memoir of the making of the movie, “The Reenactments”) has some insightful things to say in his foreword. I don’t agree with him that “the books that come the closest to The Wound’s energies are J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Albert Camus’s The Stranger.” The murder of an Arab in Camus’s native Algeria of the latter has some similarities, but not the tone or structure; the one of Coetzee’s novel is more similar, with torture figuring centrally, and a similarly open ending. In awarding Coetzee the Nobel Prize for Literature, the prize committee categorised Waiting for the Barbarians “a political thriller in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, in which the idealist’s naiveté opens the gates to horror.” Though Conrad’s narrators were more detached from the stories they related, Conrad is plausible a forerunner of Mauvignier in my view.

I’ve already opined that its indirect revelation of traumas reminds me of Faulkner (and his famous statement “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” applies to the aftereffects of the Algerian counterinsurgency as well as to slavery, the US Civil War, and Jim Crow). The novel has reminded others of the movie “The Deer Hunter” (with Bertrand having a despair similar to the character played by Christopher Walken, Rabut more of a survivor, like the character played by Robert DeNiro).


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Les Hommes won the Prix Virlo and the Prix de librariries, and the English translation was aided by French Voices.

 

Exploring Paris, Volume 58: The Slaughterhouse District: BLOOD OF THE BEASTS

BLOOD OF THE BEASTS

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(4/5)

Pros: Cinema verite techniques; surrealist touches

Cons: Undoubtedly, this would be too extreme for some viewers

Produced by French director Georges Franju in 1949, the short documentary Le Sang des bêtes (“Blood of the Beasts”) is one of the first works that could rightfully be labeled a “shockumentary” i.e. a documentary that operates in a way to shock the viewer with alarming, disturbing, or downright repulsive scenes. A “day in the life” chronicle of the workers in Paris’ slaughterhouses, this almost surreal film doesn’t at all shy away from showing the grim realities for these workers, yet there’s a surprising amount of lyricism and beauty in the film. Franju would later become well-known for the alternately gruesome and gorgeous 1959 horror classic Eyes Without a Face, and one could easily make a case that Blood of the Beasts was an early Franju experiment in softening potentially disgusting subject matter through the ways in which that material is presented onscreen.


Despite the graphic scenes, this is a film of odd beauty.

In a way, Blood of the Beasts could almost be seen as a bizarre publicity video for Paris that, instead of centering on the usual tourist destinations, focuses around the city’s slaughterhouses, and in terms of its sometimes mischievous tone and the way it heads in unexpected directions, it very much resembles the documentaries made by German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Running just 22 minutes in length, Blood of the Beasts (in its original French-language version) features a pair of narrators – George Hubert and Nicole Ladmiral – who each have specific tasks in the film. Ladmiral describes the film’s setting, mainly discussing the Paris neighborhoods – her narration has a almost romantic flavor to it. Early scenes showing children playing in a vacant lot filled with discarded remnants of civilization, an open air market in which one can find all sorts of knickknacks, and even a passionate kiss between lovers are accompanied by Ladmiral’s calming ruminations. Operating in stark contrast to these disarmingly pleasant and almost fantasy-like sequences are ones taking place inside various Parisian abbatoirs – one specializing in the processing of horses, one in cattle, and one in sheep. As necks are sliced open, blood runs through gutters, and dismembered animals twitch and convulse, Huber’s narration tells us about the workers themselves, identifying many by name and making their rather grim way of earning a living seem almost banal.


…going out not with a whimper, but a BANG!

Even though this is the type of film which could make a viewer seriously consider becoming a vegetarian, there are some remarkable sequences to be found amongst the blood and guts. Early on when the picture briefly shows the activity among the vacant lots of the Porte de Vanves, there’s a wonderful long shot showing a dirt-encrusted nude mannequin standing alongside a discarded Victrola, with a train circling in the background, separating this relative squalor from the affluent downtown area. Later in the film, Franju manages to capture a horrible but compelling image when, after a horse has been shot in the brain with a captive bolt pistol-type device, the animal instinctively curls into a position that’s almost prayer-like before it collapses to the ground in death. As graphic, gory, and downright unsettling as some of this footage is (footage of calves being slaughtered is particularly rough going), it’s undeniably fascinating to watch the methodical manner in which the workers at these facilities go about their business in an almost ritualistic fashion. These people, after all, do a job that most everyone relies on to some extent, but few people would actually want to do.


Quite possibly the most unsettling sequence in the film, showing how veal is produced.

In an interview provided on the Criterion Collection DVD which contains this (his first) film, Franju reveals that he filmed in black and white to highlight the aesthetics of the subject – “if the film had been made in color,” he proposes, “it would be repulsive.” I’d tend to agree with that sentiment – but even in the black and white, this film seems to perfectly wrap up the overall experience of being a slaughterhouse worker. One thing omnipresent throughout the film is the steam continuously seen rising from swarming masses of live animals and slick piles of offal alike – a viewer obviously isn’t privy to the actual smells of the location, but he damn well gets the idea that it has to be stomach-turning just from the grittiness of these images. All in all, Blood of the Beasts turns out to be a rare film in the bigger scheme of things: a shockumentary that not only has a genuine sense of purpose, but that also is extremely satisfying from an artistic perspective. Though most viewers (perhaps rightfully) would have no interest in watching this film, I couldn’t call it anything less than outstanding.


Blood of the Beasts is included in its entirety on the Criterion Collection DVD release of Franju’s (excellent) Eyes Without a Face. Both the original French (with subtitles) and English language prints of the documentary are included, as well as a brief interview in which Franju discusses his debut effort. The film can also .


10/10 : Extremely graphic view of everyday activity inside a slaughterhouse. It may be in black and white, but this hideously gory film would be plenty upsetting to some viewers.

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0/10 : Straight-forward documentary presentation has no room for profanity.


0/10 : Just no.


9/10 : Subject matter alone means this would be off-limits to many viewers.


“I shall strike you without anger, and without hate, like a butcher…without anger and without hate…with the simple cheerfulness of killers who whistle or sing as they slit throats…for they must earn their own daily bread and that of others with the wages of a difficult and often dangerous profession.”

EXTREME WARNING! THIS FILM IS VERY GRAPHIC

AND WILL BE DISTURBING TO MANY VIEWERS: