DON’T FEAR THE REAPER : Zeno, Garny & Farbus’s ‘Des morts’ (1981) [5/10]

Like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, viewers of Des morts "see dead people." Lots of them, in fact, from several corners of the world, in various states of decomposition, embalment and/or rigor mortis. Directed by a trio of Belgians, is an envelope-pushing, stomach-testing documentary about how different cultures treat their deceased – including footage from Thailand, Nepal, the USA, South Korea and the film-makers' native land.

The editing (credited to Sophie Fabbri, Roland Grillon and co-director Thierry Zeno) is rather arbitrarily choppy: we jump backwards and forwards from place to place, sometimes with disorienting speed. Various funerary practises are thus juxtaposed, and we're implicitly invited to draw parallels and comparisons: the 'American way of death' (as satirised in Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One) is antiseptic and restrained; the colourfully-garmented Koreans go in for much wailing and noise-making; the Thai villagers send off their deceased kinsman with a 'tribute' of several oxen, who are dispatched before our eyes in one of the film's more "mondo" moments – one of the hapless cattle twitches harrowingly for several minutes after the "death" blow has been struck.

Such sequences are undeniably tough watching – as is an autopsy in which we see inside a cadaver's chest and cranial cavity. But the whole point of the film is to show us "the skull beneath the skin": Des morts is, above all else, a memento mori – thus part of an artistic and philosophical tradition which goes back many centuries, and includes Holbein's famous painting The Ambassadors (with its 'subliminal', optical-illusion skull). Muriel Spark even called one of her (short) novels Memento Mori, in which various oldsters received a mysterious telephone call consisting of the words "Remember you must die."

It's always been a simple enough message – but one that, in the aftermath of the "me decade" that was the 1970s, perhaps needed restating with the kind of in-your-face bluntess to be found in Des morts.. The seventies saw the cults of youth and celebrity become worldwide phenomena, and there seemed the distinct possibility that science might be very close to delivering eternal life. This was the period in which cryogenics became a very big story (prefigured by Philip K Dick's classic 1969 novel Ubik) and the makers of Des morts duly include an episode in a cryogenics lab, which provides one of numerous moments where the generally morbid, sombre mood gives way to a welcome strain of 'gallows' humour (see also the matter-of-factness way the 'patient' is dicussed during his autopsy).

But the overriding tone is one of worthy, detached anthropological travelogue: the various episodes are presented in pseudo-scientific style, with each location identified by bald on-screen titles, together with the date on which the material was shot (the day and month are given, but, oddly, not the year). Alain Pierre's sparing score holds things together rather well, but there's no unifying commentary, no 'presenter – indeed, no "authorial" intercession of any kind, although at several points various (living) participants address the camera directly.

These include muscular dystrophy patients and the victim of a stabbing: interesting enough taken on their own as extremis first-person testimonies, but naggingly out of place in a film which is in theory focussing on what happens to us after our demise. In the end, Des morts feels like a rough series of observations and reflections on a general, rather loose theme – a baggy treatment of what is, and always has been, one of art's Big Subjects. The 'message' here, such as it is, could easily have been conveyed in a short. Stretched to feature length – even at the trimmed-down 95 minutes of the most commonly screened version - the results, though intermittently fascinating, ultimately feel a little repetitive, perfunctory and trite.

Neil Young
30th March, 2006

DES MORTS : [5/10] : aka Of the Dead : Belgium (Bel/Fr) 1981 : Thierry ZENO, Dominique GARNY & Jean-Pol FARBUS : 96 mins (timed – 'full' version reportedly runs 105 mins)

seen at Cubby Broccoli cinema, NMPFT, Bradford, (UK), 15th March 2006 – public show – Bradford Film Festival  (Thierry Zeno retrospective)

click HERE for other films reviewed at Bradford 2006

This screening of Des morts was sponsored by the publisher Headpress, whose latest book Sweet and Savage by Dr Mark Goodall covers the film along with other works by Thierry Zeno, and also the wider subject of 'Mondo' cinema. It can be ordered HERE.