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.

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.”



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