Film History Essentials: Charcuterie Mécanique (1895)

(English: The Mechanical Butcher)

What it’s about:

A butcher and his assistants load a pig into a large box and close the lid. Another assistant immediately begins operating machinery that appears to be attached to the back of the box, and the butcher opens up the other side of the box and begins to unload a full complement of pork products.

Why it’s essential:

Charcuterie Mécanique has been widely referred to as the first science fiction film, but it represents much more than that. The term “science fiction” brings something very different to mind than anything we see here, even in 1895. At the time, the genre didn’t yet have its name, but everyone knew of the “science novels” of Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells’ “scientific romances.” Verne in particular was adept at telling stories that featured technology or human achievements that did not yet exist, but in a manner so believable that his stories have survived the actual advent of some of those achievements without feeling badly dated.

The Lumière brothers likely did not intend this to occupy the same genre as a Verne or Wells novel, but nevertheless it does depict the use of technology that did not exist at the time the film was made. And this is a specifically “technological” rather than “magical” device, as denoted by the use of the word “mechanical” in its name, and by the operation of the machinery that is mostly hidden behind the box. You can also see around 0:14 when one of the assistants lifts up a smoking pot and pours it into the top of the machine, which then produces more smoke or steam meant to stem from the operation of the machinery.

What makes this particularly interesting is the way it employs a “trick” as a narrative and visual device to make something appear to happen that isn’t actually happen. This may well have been the first film to do something like that, and this idea opens up a world of possibilities that films still rely on to awe and entertain to this day. But equally noteworthy is that the film accomplishes its effect without the use of anything we would call “special effects.” There is no trick photography, no stopping and starting the camera, etc. Nothing happens in this film that couldn’t have been reproduced live in front of an audience with the same effect.

So, while Charcuterie Mécanique wasn’t particularly influential on the science fiction genre, it had a notable effect on the “trick” film. It was directly ripped-off, imitated, and expanded upon a number of times over the next few years. But it also signals yet another significant step for film, away from any kind of art form that had existed before, and towards becoming its own, totally-unique thing.

Why you should see it:

Most modern audiences are probably a bit more removed than people in 1895 were from the operations that turn a living animal into the meat that we consume, so for some this may seem a bit gruesome to watch. Sure, we know that the “butcher” doesn’t immediately pull out the actual head of the pig that we just saw go into the “machine,” but it’s still an actual pig’s head. If it helps (it probably doesn’t), reportedly this film, and some others like it, were sometimes run backwards instead of forwards. This showed instead the various parts of a butchered pig being loaded into the machine, and then wondrously reconstituted back into a live animal that is pulled out the other side.

There is an innocent whimsy to this film, and no doubt audiences appreciated it in the spirit of humor that its creators apparently intended. Still, it does perhaps foreshadow our present reliance on mechanically processed foods, and the consumer’s lack of connection to, or even knowledge about, where those foods originated or how they were produced. This film was made in a time of increased automation, and less than a decade later, Upton Sinclair would be working undercover while researching his famous exposé on the meat industry. Whether the Lumière brothers were aware of any of these larger issues or not, that connection to a larger conversation more than anything qualifies this as genuine science fiction.


~ by Jared on February 15, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Charcuterie Mécanique (1895)”

  1. […] as natural and spontaneous as possible. Across many hundreds of films, there are of course some notable exceptions to this norm. However, in general, they sought to entertain the audience by showing them scenes that could be […]


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