Filmed between 1991 and 1994, Nicolas Philibert’s Un animal, des animaux is a gently extraordinary documentary that follows the refurbishment and eventual reopening of the Zoology Gallery of Paris’ Le Muséum National d’Histore Naturelle in 1994 – an important colonial and scientific institution of late 19th century France. As in much of the rest of his cinema, Philibert takes the banal, everyday and painstakingly laborious tasks of work – in this case the reanimating, repairing, recategorisation and restaging of the museum’s vast collection of “animals” – and mines them for small moments and observations that highlight the artistry, craft, dedication, humour and surreal strangeness of this activity. As in many of his other films, he uses the opportunity of filming a particular process and institution to create a space and time for contemplation, an environment in which the spectator co-exists with the film’s numerous subjects and points of fascination.
Although the film opens with the image of a veritable Noah’s Ark of animals being transported to their renovated home in the Jardin des Plantes, it rarely pushes or insists upon a particular metaphor or way of reading a specific image. The film is full of moments of strange, almost surreal humour and pathos: the image of a curator cleaning a large bird specimen with a feather duster; the bobbing heads of almost moving animals as they pass through the entry to their refashioned home; the more confronting transformations of new specimens into fit and proper displays. It can be argued that Un animal, des animaux sits somewhere between Philibert’s earlier La ville Louvre (1990) and his most recent work, Nénette (2010). Although one would assume a closer affinity with the latter work – which focuses on an orangutan in the Managerie du Jardin des Plantes – Un animal, des animaux actually has much more in common with his earlier portrait of the great Parisian museum. As in La ville Louvre, Philibert is more interested in those elements and images that are not normally on display (or that are constitutive of the process of display). But whereas in the earlier film we get the sense of what it would be like to visit the famous gallery after dark, Un animal, des animaux goes some way to showing us the small actions and gestures that create the gallery’s monolithic and overwhelming display. We never see its actual reopening and few shots in the film give us a clear overview of the institution’s scale (or the reality of its 70 million or so artefacts). In the process of combining and staging all these elements, the film achieves a musicality that highlights rhythm, tone, the development of recurring motifs, and the subtle and dynamic relationship between image and sound. It moves between the clattering industrial noises of the refitting, the sometimes absurd, hushed conversations of the curators, snatches of playful score, and the squeaks and scrapes of the animals being reconditioned, wheeled and lifted into the gallery. But as in Philibert’s cinema more generally, a sense of quiet and duration seep into the work.
The film’s soundtrack provides a wonderful counterpart or counterpoint to the organisation of its images, suggestive of both the reanimation and resurrection of the gallery and its animals – these scrapes and squeaks resemble, at times, the rising and falling calls of animals in a zoo – and the soulful absence of these once living creatures. Philibert’s framing and montage also emphasise this dichotomy. He carefully positions the animals to suggest the possibility of life – miming how they are presented and dramatised in the museum – while also isolating them within the often-blank space of the frame. They seem to be looking at us while also being consciously framed as specimens, and combined into a categorical and taxonomical montage of looks, gestures and species. Although the film does touch upon the sad spectacle of all these mostly long dead animals displayed for the pleasure of visiting Parisians – and is full of shots of beautifully lit, stuffed animals “looking” quizzically and even longingly into the distance – it is less a critique of this practice than a haunting celebration of the diversity of the animal kingdom and humanity’s conditioning place within it. It is also a fascinating portrait of the shifting practice of taxidermy, scientific and philosophical understandings of the place of the human within the larger animal world, and the human need to connect to, control and display this world. In the process, it presents the transformation of the animal – or at least representative elements of it such as its pelt or skin – into art, showing us the ways in which the lifelike displays that we see are constructed from various – only partly organic – materials, and are arranged in ways that meet human conceptions and expectations of how life should be categorised, tamed and presented.
But no one element takes precedent within the film’s structure. The film is not making a specific or single argument about the ethics or morality of this human activity (it recognises the beauty of display, architectural space and human ingenuity, while also noting the peculiarly human detachment from the outside world it signifies). It is full of surprising images and juxtapositions. For example, the gentleness and care of the curators’ retouching of various specimens – often using colour charts and acrylic paints – is contrasted with the more brutal and confronting preparation of a seal carcass or the bashing of a badger’s pelt into a suitable form of display. These activities also throw up surprising observations: when removed for the skin’s preparation the bones and flesh of the seal’s flippers look uncannily like human hands. In these moments, the preparation of the material world of the gallery – breaking and reforming display cases, for instance – and that of the animals to be displayed within it is seen as part of the same form and activity. The links between the preparation of the animals and interior design are not accidental.
Like Georges Franju’s surrealist documentary Le sang des bêtes (1949) and Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Philibert is less concerned with the human characteristics of animals than the uses that humans make of them. But also like Franju and Bresson, Philibert emphasises aspects of the animal world that are beyond human understanding and its attendant anthropomorphism. Despite the fact that these figures have been arranged for human contemplation, it is not possible for us to truly gauge or read the gestures and gazes the animals display. Although the human figures of Un animal, des animaux seldom recognise the camera – and certainly never look into it (Philibert’s is a cinema that partly effaces the filmmaker despite his constant implication in the things we see) – the animal specimens are arranged for and interact with it.
The film’s loose structure, musical arrangement, and reticence about providing too much contextualising information and background, are in keeping with Philibert’s generally unemphatic and open style, as well as characteristic of an attempt to avoid the overarching categorisation, narrativisation and anthropomorphism that mark its subject. When Philibert’s camera shows a specimen it is less to promote its relation to human understanding – the museum is designed to stage this – than to emphasise its otherness, strangeness and isolation. There is wonder at the scale, ambition and poetry of the museum, but animal – other than human – life definitely appears to be elsewhere. This aspect is emphasised in the models of exhibits we sometimes see, as well as the soft toys and animal figurines that museum workers collect on their desks – a particular object of fascination emphasising a peculiar human need.
But this has implications beyond the organisation and categorisation of the natural world. As Serge Kaganski suggests, in Un animal, des animaux “Philibert shows us a metaphor for the shooting of a film” by only focusing on the painstaking work that leads up to the reopening of the gallery (1). Although the animals on display have well and truly passed their use-by-date, Philibert films them in such a way that we still expect that they might spring into action at almost any time. This is despite the fact that we have seen them being restored, repainted, pinned under glass, stuffed with straw or mounted on wooden frames. But it is the time that Philibert grants these specimens that grants them this possibility, this quivering state of anticipation. Nevertheless, Philibert’s film favours no one element. Although it gives time to various figures – human and non-human, alive and inanimate – and actions it never prioritises a personality, species or particular reading of the things it presents. Its focus is on the small elements that make up the museum’s huge work of display and representation, an approach that honours the truly communal and shared nature of human and animal creativity.
Philibert’s films never insist upon or require a deeper knowledge of the thing or event they are documenting. His approach is to eschew research and the kind of outward display of information typical of documentaries that deal with social, cultural and historical subject matter. This kind of information is mainly communicated in Un animal, des animaux by a brief opening titlecard and a subsequent short sequence of old photographs that show the gallery in an earlier time. This is not to say that such contexts are not important to Philibert’s films, but they are not insisted upon or over-emphasised. The underlying philosophy of this approach is one of encounter, of letting the place, people, objects and events emerge from the practice of filmmaking itself. Philibert’s films are not “observational” in the way that Frederick Wiseman’s are. They are intimate, crafted, refined, and ever so subtly organised.
Characteristically, Un animal, des animaux does not really foreground its connection to other artists, films and filmmakers. Nevertheless, several commentators have made pertinent links to the work of Alain Resnais, Jean Painlevé, Chris Marker and Georges Franju, and such painters as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (more in terms of its view of the natural world rather than its aesthetic approach). The connection to the poetic and searching documentaries of Resnais, Marker and Franju is, of course, apt, as Philibert’s cinema contains a similar attraction to what might be termed the surrealism of the everyday, as well as an openness to ideas, connections and material that move beyond the frame of conventional documentary, especially its provision of information and often restricted conception of what constitutes a suitable “subject”. There are specific parallels that can be drawn between Philibert’s film and Resnais and Marker’s landmark Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953). Like Un animal, des animaux, Resnais and Marker’s film is also an artefact that reflects upon French colonialism and the transformation of living objects – those of native and ancient cultures from around the world – into works of “dead” art. Despite attempts to contextualise such artefacts – and actually turn them into objects for study rather than living parts of a traditional culture or traditional parts of a living culture – the film argues that such acts of conextualisation, understanding and display reinforce colonial, imperialist and inherently modernist ways of viewing, categorising and cataloging the world. They actually change the object itself and our relation to it, as well as our connection to the world. Similar claims can be made for Un animal, des animaux and how it views natural history (there are no live animals – beyond the human, revealingly – at any point in the film). Philibert’s unwillingness to provide much information about the gallery’s history, to present a narrative of its reopening and revitalisation, or to prioritise the human in this activity, create something of an antidote to the philosophy and organisational principles under which the museum was constituted. Although the museum and this gallery in particular are defined by the principles of evolution – and humanity’s place within such a narrative – Philibert’s emphasis and approach always suggest other possibilities and ways of organising these materials.
There is, of course, a more direct connection to be drawn to Marker’s La jetée (1962). In one of the film’s longest and most pivotal scenes the two central characters find themselves in the same gallery that Philibert shows (these images were taken three or so years before its closure in 1965). There are some obvious parallels to be drawn in terms of how this sequence foregrounds the basic structure or illusion of cinema. Much has been written about La jetée’s insistence on the relationship between photography and cinema, the still image and its moving counterpart. Film itself is an act of reanimation, the stringing together of “dead” images into the impression of continuous movement (granting a sense of presentness). Marker’s film gives its photograms duration but also suggests the constitutive relation between the still and moving image. In this scene the act of reanimation is doubled by the display of what the narrator describes as the “ageless” animals of the museum. Philibert’s Un animal, des animaux also provides these animal specimens with time, presenting a portrait of each that suggests the possibility of reanimation (in a similar way that the cinema offers the photograph). The time it gives to a particular figure literally reanimates it. Freeing them from the temporal logic of the museum, and refusing to follow the processional path suggested by its main display of the “family” of animals across its great hall, Philibert’s offers the suggestion of other possibilities. Not so much an understanding of the animal world or this museum as an opportunity to spend some time alongside the artefacts of the present and the past, the human and the non-human, the living and the “dead”.
- Serge Kaganski, “Animal Crackers”, Nicolas Philibert: http://www.nicolasphilibert.fr/. Originally published in Les Inrockuptibles 5 June 1996.
Un Animal, des animaux (1994 France 59 mins)
Prod Co: Les Films d’Ici/France 2/ Le Muséum National d’Histore Naturelle/Le Mission Interministérielle des Grands Travaux Prod: Serge Lalou Dir: Nicolas Philibert Phot: Frédéric Labourasse, Nicolas Philibert Ed: Guy Lecorne Sound: Henri Maïkoff, Julian Cloquet Mus: Philippe Hersant