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.


Artistic and fascinating, the film is shot in black and white with some colour, using split screens, hand-drawing, double exposures and still as well as moving footage. A backdrop of water sounds--from surging torrents to hollow dripping--accompanies the images and the voice-over. Occasional flickers of movement in the eyes, fingers and throats of the actors have been left.

Inspired by and dedicated to the self portrait of Hippolyte Bayard as a drowned man, this film not only recreates the continuity of ordinary life (and death) of Parisians in the immediate post-revolutionary period, it displays with candour the hidden business of dealing with the dead. For historians of any stripe, it demonstrates the tremendous wealth of information and imagination lurking in a simple manuscript register.


Collaboration of Centre National des Arts Plastiques and Centre National de Cinematographie.

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