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Between April 1795 and September 1801, 306 bodies were pulled from the river Seine in Paris. A register of these deaths, indicating, sex, age, hair colour, wounds (if any) and a description of clothing (if any) was kept by two mortuary clerks, Citizen Bouille and Citizen Daude. If witnesses came forward in the days that followed, the names, occupations of the "silent guests" and the witnesses would be added together with the circumstances of the deaths. In most cases the cause of violent death was unknown, or unrecorded--be it "accident, misadventure, suicide, or murder." Bouille and Daude would not speculate.
This artistic documentary uses a male narrator and an eloquent text to present 23 out of the 306 cases: traveling clerks, hearty horsemen, children, mothers, mistresses, aged widows, and a laundress with her little daughter drowned together. These people had lived through the Revolution, the Terror and the early Consultate and it seems reasonable to wonder if the political circumstances they had experienced were somehow connected to their demise. On the other hand, the occupations--tobacco-pouch maker, carter, delivery clerk--invoke the continuity of daily life in the great city despite the political turmoil.
Each case is presented with the site and details of the discovery of the body, followed by a description of the external anatomy as the camera moves slowly and clinically upward over the naked corpse from the feet to head. The shadowy antics of the crude yet sympathetic bureaucrats Bouille and Daude appear throughout, as they retrieve bodies, wash them, label them, and arrange for the witnesses to view them with enforced respect. But we know less about Bouille and Daude than we do about their "guests."
The narrator reminds us how memory rarely survives more than three generations. Who will remember us, he asks, or these actors who lay very still? And as the register ends, the Revolutionary calendar that governed it ended too. These people who no longer exist could be said to have lived in a time that also no longer exists, because it is no longer measured.
Julia Sweeney performs on film the dramatic monologue that she wrote and performed "live" on stage. The period of her life on which she focuses are the nine months of her brother's dying, when he and her parents moved into her home--an idyllic bungalow that she had set up for herself, following her recent divorce. Instead of having the opportunity to enjoy the freedom of being single again, she is thrust into the thicket of family relationships, the sadness of her brother's poor health, and the demands made by his treatment for lymphoma.
Her parents, she says, have always been for her a "source of comedy, or a reason to be in therapy." These are the resources Sweeney is able to tap as she comments with humor and insight on living like a child in her own home, as her mother takes over the household and bickers with her father, who is drinking too much. But even as she jokes about the clash in lifestyles between herself and her parents (after all, she hasn't lived with them for 16 years), she weaves into the narrative the nature of life with her brother, whom she accompanies for his daily radiation treatments and whom she ministers to as he undergoes chemotherapy.
While not minimizing the seriousness of her brother's illness, she (as well as he) can find the surreal humor in their medical encounters. Thus Julia Sweeney describes how, when scar tissue prevents further injection into his spinal fluid and the doctors recommend a brain "shunt" for that purpose, assuring them that other patients "love their shunts," brother Mike not only agrees to the procedure, but adopts the slogan, "I love my shunt" for every conceivable situation.
The surreal becomes the real when Julia learns that she too has cancer--a rare form of cervical cancer that will require a hysterectomy. Even as she describes her shock and horror at this new blow, Sweeney takes comfort in Mike's sense of humor: he accuses her of getting even with him for taking "the cancer spotlight." Her narration of picking up her own pathology slides and of making the decision not to have her ova ("eggs") harvested and fertilized are both funny and poignant.
Amy (Mira Sorvino), a New York City architect, takes a needed break at a mountain spa where she falls in love with her blind masseur, Virgil (Val Kilmer). He has congenital cataracts and retinitis pigmentosa. His older sister Jenny (Kelly McGillis) has looked after him for twenty years since their father left and their mother died. She is jealous of Amy’s place in Virgil’s life, and he is angered when Amy contacts a specialist hoping to help him see again.
At first, he resents the implication that his blindness is a problem. But he decides to leave with Amy for New York, where his cataracts are removed. When the bandages are removed he is terrified by the confusing sights that his brain cannot recognize (visual agnosia).
Virgil’s slow adjustment to vision is an exciting challenge, but it drives a wedge between him and Amy. When the retinal disease returns and he begins to go blind again, he leaves her and sets out on his own finding work at a school for blind children. The film ends with a promising moment as Amy and Virgil encounter each other in Central Park.
To escape accusations of plagiarism, Swedish neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (Ernst Hugo Jaregard) has come to work at The Kingdom, a large Copenhagen hospital. He is a surgical butcher with lamentable bedside manners and utter contempt for Denmark, but he resembles his colleagues in his medical positivism and abhorrence of spiritualism. His inadequacies are easily perceived by the hospital staff and resident Dr. Hook (Soren Pilmark), but his fellow consultants celebrate his arrival and make him a member of their lodge.
The malingering spiritualist Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), admitted for a variety of fictitious ailments, discovers The Kingdom is haunted by a little girl murdered there a century ago by her scientist stepfather. Drusse engages the help of her son, who is an orderly, to trace the child's secret.
Tangents to the main plot involve a pathologist, who is so obsessed with obtaining research tissue that he has a cancerous liver transplanted into himself, and the psychopathic medical student son of the hospital director, whose sick sense of humor leads him to mutilate corpses in the hospital morgue. The ending is pure horror.
The film opens with a short series of images of hospitals, dead bodies, landscapes, a hand impaled by a nail, and a bespectacled young boy lying uncomfortably under a thin sheet. (The shot of an erect penis was removed for distribution outside Scandinavia.) A young nurse (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to look after a great actress, Elizabeth (Liv Ullman), who had been playing Electra to critical success. Elizabeth is completely mute, but the psychiatrists cannot detect any discrete pathology and have no diagnosis.
At first the nurse worries that the case may be too complicated for her, because of the difference in age and experience. The pair are sent to the doctor's summer cottage by the sea. The actress remains silent, but her nurse chatters endlessly, trying to draw out the patient. Eventually, in a complete reversal of psychotherapeutic roles, she is compulsively confiding her fears and intimate secrets of sexual adventures.
To her horror, she reads a letter written by Elizabeth to the psychiatrist that describes the confessions as nothing more than amusing diversions. She is angered and deliberately tries to harm Elizabeth. Then she delivers a stern accounting for her patient's silence, as a rejection of her femininity, her marriage, and especially of her son. This scene is portrayed twice--once with the camera on the nurse; once with the camera on the patient. The irritated husband comes for his wife, they return to the city, where Elizabeth's future is ambiguous. But at the completion of their relationship the nurse has grown in wisdom and confidence.
At Christmas, 1913, the two Rappard boys and their grandmother (May Robson) bring a cake to the Brussels nursing home where the English matron, Edith Cavell (Anna Neagle), is caring for their dying mother and many small children. The prayer is for peace, but in a few short months war has spread over Europe and the oldest boy is sent to fight.
He is taken prisoner, but escapes to the nursing home because he hears that Germans are shooting prisoners. Cavell, with a network of friends including the boys' grandmother, the barge-owner Mme Moulin (ZaSu Pitts), and a dignified Countess (Edna May Oliver) help him and two hundred other wounded young men to escape into Holland and France.
By August 1915, Cavell and her friends are betrayed by a German spy and put on trial. Despite international pleas for her release or detention, she is shot at dawn on 12 October 1915. Linking nursing to religion, the priest who attends her final hours tells her, "it is God's will," while the hymn, "Abide With Me," sung in the final scene of her 1919 memorial service at Westminster Abbey, reminds viewers that she had been "help of the helpless."
The austere and homesick Breton doctor, René T.H. Laennec (1781-1826) (Pierre Blanchar) and his religious friend, G.L. Bayle (1774-1816) are caring for the hundreds of patients dying of epidemic tuberculosis in the Necker Hospital of Paris. They conduct autopsies on the dead, but cannot predict the findings before the patients' demise, nor can they offer any treatment.
Laennec's sister, Marie-Anne, arrives from Brittany with news of their brother's death from tuberculosis. He confesses his despair over this devastating scourge to his friend, but quickly realizes that Bayle too is doomed. A distant cousin, the widow Jacquemine Guichard Argou, becomes Laennec's housekeeper and companion in philanthropic work for the sick after he is able to reassure her about her health; she engages the widow of Bayle in the same enterprise.
One day in 1816, Laennec is invited by urchins to hear to the scratching of a pin transmitted through the length of a wooden beam. He is thereby inspired to fashion a paper tube to listen to the chests of his patients. With Jacquemine at his side, he joyously announces that he can hear sounds from inside the chest. Feverish research ensues as he links the chests sounds of the dying to the findings at autopsy.
He turns his wooden, cylindrical stethoscopes on a lathe in his apartment, publishes his findings, and marries Argou. Fame and notoriety follow, as Laennec is able to distinguish fatal disease from minor illness and to predict the need for operations; however, he is ridiculed by jealous colleagues. Suffering now himself, Laennec consults his friend Pierre Louis, who tells him that he has tuberculosis. In the final scene, he returns to his native Brittany only to collapse on the stairs of his beloved home and die.
Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling) travels to the court of Louis XVI at Versailles seeking support for his plan to drain a marsh in order to relieve his poverty-stricken community from the scourge of malarial fever. Naive in the ways of court, he is robbed and left on the road for dead. A kindly doctor and would-be courtier (Bernard Girardeau) finds Grégoire and nurses him back to health with the help of his beautiful and highly intelligent daughter, Mathilde (Judith Godréche).
Grégoire accompanies the doctor to court where he quickly excels in the fine arts of repartee, ridicule, and sang-froid. Seeing this practice as a route to the king, Grégoire plays the game well and begins to have fun, in spite of himself. He attracts the attention of the influential Comtesse de Blayac (Fanny Ardent) with whom he sleeps, despite his love for Mathilde.
A peasant child's death at home inflames his obsession over the marsh. At the moment he is finally about to have the king's attention, he duels with an officer over a matter of honor; he wins the duel but loses his regal audience for having shot a royal soldier. The film ends in the Revolution: Grégoire and Mathilde are well launched in their drainage project and the doctor is an émigré on the English coast learning the fine arts of British humor.
Alicia (Norma Aleandro) lives a comfortable life with her husband Roberto (H?tor Alterio) and her adopted five-year-old daughter, Gaby (Analia Castro). She teaches history in a boy's prep school and is a stickler for rules, insisting that her students confine classroom discussion and essays to events as they are related in textbooks and official documents ("the official story"). She believes only what she reads but her students have been radicalized by political events and defiantly tell her that "history is written by assassins."
When her old friend, Ana (Chunchuna Villafane), returns after living abroad for several years, Alicia learns that Ana had been held prisoner and tortured for more than a month by members of the former regime, as they attempted to extort from her the whereabouts of her husband, a "subversive." From Ana she learns that many others had been held prisoner, tortured, murdered, and that infants had been taken from their mothers.
When Alicia goes to her classes she encounters street demonstrations demanding the return of the "disappeared." Her well ordered life begins to unravel as she wonders about her adopted child's true origins. She questions her husband, who had arranged for the adoption, but he brushes her off, saying that it is of no concern to her. Not satisfied with this response, she searches hospital records and government archives.
At one of these occasions three women who are searching for "disappeared" relatives overhear and approach her. She becomes increasingly convinced that her daughter must have been taken from a murdered political prisoner. She is grief-stricken at the thought that she might have to give her daughter up but at the same time she empathizes with the unknown relatives who have lost the child; she is in despair.
When Sara (Chela Ruiz), one of the three women, presents to her convincing evidence that Gaby is actually her own granddaughter, Alicia confronts her husband in Sara's presence. Alicia has come to believe that Roberto--an admitted rightist--was duplicitous but he ridicules them both and, after Sara leaves, becomes enraged with his wife, brutally attacking and physically injuring her. She leaves him.
The young English doctor, Mary Percy Jackson (M.D. Birmingham 1928), went to practice in northern Alberta for a year. She had been recruited by a philanthropic movement that targeted women doctors: they could be paid lower wages and would also cook and keep house. But she fell in love with the subarctic community, its native peoples, and a certain widowed farmer with two young sons, and stayed for the next seven decades.
Dr. Jackson became the only physician responsible for the well being of aboriginals and settlers in a wide radius of remote territory where winters last more than six months and the only effective mode of transportation was the horse. Married and in relative prosperity, she did not seek payment for her medical work, although she appreciated gifts in kind.
Despite the isolation, Jackson was vigilant about nutrition, vaccination, and tuberculosis control and she kept up with the latest advances in health promotion. She and her husband were active in improving opportunities for education. The film closes with a simple party for Jackson, at the local school named in her honour.