The White Horse, Seul Contre Tous and Notes on Meat as Metaphor

By Jane Giles

In both documentary and drama film-making, the slaughterhouse has provided an enduring subject for its potential to deliver a clear political metaphor and deal explicitly in images of unfaked visual horror.

Charting, through its central character Jean Chevalier, the relentless downwards spiral of a man who has already lost everything, Seul Contre Tous asks us to consider which may be the greater humiliation for a former horse butcher: to work as a charcutier in a delicatessen where an acned junior tells him to smile to sell second-rate salami, or in the slaughterhouse of his former supplier, who sits tight beneath an equine pin-up. In either case, it is certainly not the handling of meat that disturbs Chevalier but his place in the respective contingent power relations of employer and employee.

le-sang-des-betes-georges-franju.jpgLe Sang des Bêtes, 1949

In a different way Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Meat (1976) deals with the same issue, comparing the dehumanising factory work of packing processed protein with the politics of the shop floor. And amongst the piles of holistic evidence in the trial of the McLibel two, the pay and working conditions of fast food employees were considered alongside an analysis of the product’s nutritional content, the ethics of child-orientated marketing strategies, the treatment of animals and the global ecology of food production.

The slaughterhouse worker is a familiar figure in film (a staple of Fassbinder’s oeuvre, for example); probably the most sustained dramatised account of meat as metaphor is in Bill Duke’s The Killing Floor (1985). There was nothing arbitrary about this choice; the film was set in the stockyards of Chicago, and the meat industry was the initial source of the wealth of this city, labelled “hog-butcher to the world” by its own poet laureate, Carl Sandburg. Duke’s film tells the story of Frank, a black sharecropper who arrives from the Deep South shortly after the USA’s entry into World War 1, and details the struggles to improve working conditions and unionise the workforce. At first, when as a result of the war labour is scarce and there is a boom in the market, Frank is able to overcome racial intolerance and become a leader in the struggle; once the war is over, the packers (the bosses) are able to revert to their traditional “divide and rule” tactics, using returning servicemen and new migrants from the South to destroy the union for a generation. Solidarity melts away in the fires and violence of the 1919 race riots.


Unable to find work or a loan from the fellow butchers, who plead hard-times, Chevalier, broke and starving, dreams of sensuously sorting raw meat. Awakening with the false clarity of the light-headed, he takes his institutionalised mute daughter Cynthia back to the hotel room in which she was conceived. Cynthia patiently awaits her fate; the slaughter of this innocent has been on the cards since we saw Chevalier pummel his unborn child to certain still-birth. Between full-scale atrocities such as the Jonestown mass-suicide to the intimate domestic catastrophes which barely make the news, the act of a parent murdering their own child masquerades as mercy killing. But not for Noé the shocking yet terminally artful demise of La Dolce Vita’s liberal intellect Steiner and his perfect family; in Seul Contre Tous’ most horrifying sequence the professional butcher bodges his daughter’s death. As the Célinean ticker-tape of his hyperventilating conscientiousness runs out of control, the camera stays doggedly on Cynthia’s hellishly protracted death throes until Chevalier finally puts a bullet through the brain of his beloved. Blood pumps, bits splatter, but we keep looking, believing in the story while somewhere abstractly admiring the persuasive special effects.

In an analysis of fake Snuff (a ’70s horror movie hyped by its US distributor as the real thing and billed as “a film from South America, where life is cheap”), Kim Newman pointed out that anyone with a basic knowledge of film syntax will read its supposedly actual killing of an actress as a construct, thanks to the insertion of close-ups shot again from different angles. Snuff movies probably don’t exist, but among the ranks of bizarre under-the-counter videos, material documenting the torture and murder of animals seems to provide a stop-gap for the hungry sadistic eye.

meat-frederick-wiseman.jpgMeat, 1976

Some kind of moral predecessor to “animal snuff” may be Georges Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes (1949), a strangely lyrical documentary. Viewable only through spread fingers or a hailstorm of tears, it defies the very act of looking. The film’s power comes from witnessing the real conditions of the slaughterhouse (which are not explained by conventional commentary) but also through the affecting image of trust betrayed: I seem to remember a beautiful white cart horse, a working beast which allows itself to be led through the streets and into the gates of the slaughterhouse where a man puts a bullet into his brain. Or maybe it’s a hammer. The murder triggers an incomprehensible orgy of shooting, skinning, hacking as man and beast flail around in steaming excrement, blood and vomit. Whatever the power of post-war hunger, Franju can find nothing appetising in this holocaust. Wiseman’s Meat shows us what he calls “the Judas goat”, the one who leads the other beasts to the slaughter before swiftly side-stepping the death chamber itself. Franju’s white horse is the one who didn’t get away, closer to the donkey saint of Robert Bresson’s parable Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966) and to the sacrificed horse whose corpse is trapped on the opening bridge of Eisenstein’s October (1927). As a whole, Le Sang des bêtes also evokes the startling shots of a slaughterhouse intercut with the massacre of the workers in Strike (1924).

Fernando Solanas’ brilliant plea for violent revolution La Hora de los Hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1967) is a documentary dealing in death, an indictment of American imperialism and an unsentimental vision of a country (Argentina) built on the beef trade. Something of Solanas’ technique of “tumultuous images, sophisticated montage and sledgehammer titles” (Film as Subversive Art, Amos Vogel, New York: Random House, 1974) remains in Gaspar Noé’s method, for example his underlining of defining moments with the deafening, synthesised sound of a door slamming somewhere in Chevalier’s mind. La Hora de los Hornos can be said to have no conclusion in that its last frames create a miracle. For several minutes we stare at a close-up still of the murdered Che Guevara’s face; the once-familiar features of this icon are subtly changed in death, but his eyes remain open and fixed on ours. The mechanism of the projected image somehow conspires with our basic faith and Guevara seems to breathe, suggesting the endurance of his example, and perhaps even the possibility of life after death.

And so Seul Contre Tous finally delivers its own kind of redemption. As one of Funny Games’ vicious killers grabs a remote control to rewind the film and undo the “accidental” death of his sidekick, so this errant knight shakes off the fantasy of murdering his daughter to find her still standing at the window, as patient and impassive as Franju’s white horse. We love the cinema for its ability to bring the dead back to life, but what does a man’s death really look like? If neither Hollywood, the European independents nor even so-called “snuff movies” can tell us, one may look to the avant-garde director Stan Brakhage’s extraordinary silent film document of an autopsy, The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1972). To quote Vogel’s summary of Brakhage’s work: “This final demystification of man – an unforgettable reminder of our physicality, fragility, mortality – robs us of metaphysics only to reintroduce it on another level; for the more physical we are seen to be, the more marvellous becomes the mystery”.

Jane Giles is a film programmer and Vertigo editor.