Death in the Seine (1988)

Death in the Seine

From April 1795 to September 1801, 306 bodies were taken from the River Seine in Paris and temporarily placed in a morgue. It can safely be presumed that whether through accident, misadventure, suicide or murder, all the bodies taken from the river met death violently, though not all may have drowned. The corpses were cared for by the morgue's two attendants: Bouille and Daude, who methodically noted down the full particulars of each corpse - its sex, its age, the hair colouring, the bodily wounds and scars, and if the body was found clothed, then a full description of the cut, colour and condition of the clothing and the contents of the pockets. 23 of the 306 people are examined. Greenaway narrates to us the background of their lives and the description of their deaths. The sound and sight of water splashing is prevalent. The film was made in memory of Hippolyte Bayard's self portrait as a drowned man.

Hippolyte Bayard's self portrait as a drowned man

"I'd come across Richard Cobb's book Death in Paris. He'd discovered a mortuary archive in the Bibliothèque Nationale, supplied by two morgue assistants, Boule and Daude, who in the years just after the French Revolution had very carefully, if naively, written up accounts of corpses they'd been responsible for between 1790 and 1801, years that would include the Terror, the Directoire and the Consulate. I think they recorded something like six hundred bodies brought to them to identify, of which 410 were taken out of the River Seine. It was a list of death, a catalogue of corpses - incomplete, unfinished - like all catalogues - providing findings and statistics which, as always, asked more questions than they provided answers. What I wanted to do was to attempt some sort of resurrection of these people dredged dripping from the Seine - the people of the Paris crowd just after the Revolution. Because the TV programme was short at forty minutes, we chose some twenty-three subject-cases to provide a cross-section, representing likely murder, suicide, industrial accident, drunkenness, disposal of a body after robbery, teenage pregnancy.

The mortuary assistants had recorded in a haphazard fashion details of sex, hair colour, physical wounds, details of clothing and contents of the pockets, and where witnesses and relatives had come forward with information or to identify or collect the corpses, some indication of the corpse's profession or trade or circumstances. These mortuary notes are largely about what these two morgue assistants see and not what they know - perhaps a similar concept to that which governs The Draughtsman's Contract.

These lists of bold uncomplicated facts are often poignant, always unsentimental. The naked woman in her seventies, who is dredged ashore clasping two leeks in her left hand. A boy whose pockets contain a bent nail and a button and length of string - then as now familiar. Sometimes the initials of the clothing's laundry marks did not fit the initials of the corpse. Sometimes the wounds of the corpse could have been caused by the body bumping against the piers of a Seine bridge or maybe were the marks of foul play. I wanted to make a catalogue-movie presenting the mortuary-note facts via representations with present day subjects pretending to be corpses - dredged from water, sometimes revived, searched for clues, open to interpretation. It is possible to match the very hot summers and the very cold winters of those eleven-odd years - that persuaded Parisians, especially children, to go swimming and skating - with the tragic consequences of their enthusiasms.

The image of the drowned female in this list was tragically frequent. Cobb makes surmises - April is the favourite month for young female suicides - nine month after summer. Whereas hanging was the favourite method of suicide for males without access to gunpowder, drowning was favoured by females. Unrequited love, unwanted pregnancy." - Peter Greenaway, from the book, Being Naked Playing Dead, Alan Woods 1996

Bouille and Daude

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