Film History Essentials: Laveuses sur la Rivière (1897)

(English: Washerwomen on the River)

What it’s about:

A group of women wash clothes aboard a bateau-lavoirs (laundry boat), likely on the river Rhône or the Saône, in Lyon. As the women scrub furiously, a few men look on from mid-way up the bank. Meanwhile, traffic passes back and forth on the street above.

Why it’s essential:

The Lumière brothers’ actualities are easy to take at face-value. They are brief, with no manipulation or movement of the camera, and they seem to simply capture a truly authentic slice of life. But we know there are levels of authenticity, and that the Lumières were not above staging elements to get a “more natural” shot. The choice of subject, too, can indicate a point of view, as are choices like how it is framed, from what distance, at what angle, who is included and excluded from the shot, when it begins and ends, etc.

From the beginning, the Lumières showed a consciousness of the significance of some of these choices, along with a particular vision for the scene they wanted to capture. Always very aware of what was happening inside the frame, with more experience they showed an increasing awareness of how to use the placement of the frame itself. Laveuses sur la Rivière has a painter’s eye for image composition. There are four different strata all layered atop each other, and each one clearly divided from the others. The lowest layer (the river itself) is the closest to the camera, and they get successively further back, with the top layer (the street and the houses along it) at the greatest distance. It’s a masterpiece of a shot.

Beginning with the renovations of Paris in the 1850s, free community wash-houses were constructed across the country. However, towns with access to large rivers, such as the Lumières’ hometown of Lyon, might have laundry boats along the riverbanks as well. These communal spaces were the ancestors of the laundromat, and served an equally important function in industrial-era urban life. As this shot’s purpose was not to document the boat itself (the functioning of which would have been well known to the intended audience) much of the boat is outside of the shot.

A fleet of laundry boats on the left bank of the Rhône.

As can be seen in the image at right, there would have been a whole row of similar boats along the water’s edge, serving the nearest of the city’s nearly half-million residents. Beginning in 1860, these boats were also equipped with boilers for steam and hot water, and the space for hanging clothes to dry are clearly visible in both the image and on the right side of the frame within the film.

The cinematograph had no zoom lens, and this shot appears to be too close to the boat to have been taken from the opposite bank. Observing closely, it is evident that there is a very subtle bobbing motion that causes the top of the image to visibly rise and fall slightly. Presumably, then, this scene was filmed from aboard a boat in the middle of the river. As is often the case, a film intended to depict for contemporary audiences sights that were commonplace in their everyday lives has, with the passage of time, become an artifact for modern viewers to experience a window into a past that no longer exists.

Why you should see it:

The laundry boat is an absolute hive of activity as the whole row of women perform what is obviously very physically-rigorous work, without break or pause. A row of women working on the other side of the boat is visible, as well, and there is a third row: The women’s reflections, visible in the river below. The amount and variety of motion made this an excellent subject for filming. Not one of the women so much as glances up for a moment to see that they are being recorded. Their attention is fully absorbed by the work in front of them, unlike some others who are also in the shot.

The Lumières had a great aversion to their subjects staring at the camera while they were being filmed, believing that it distracted from the “naturalism” of the scene. It is likely, then, that they did not intentionally capture the stark contrast seen here, but it is a fascinating one nonetheless. As a few dozen women work furiously in the foreground of the shot, three men stand completely idle on the shore just above, staring fixedly towards the camera, no doubt interested to observe the cinematograph and its operator in action. (A fourth man, who is walking on the road, pauses to watch, then after a few seconds, lounges against a post before continuing on about his business by the end.) The juxtaposition between the working women and the inactive men, likely a difference of class as much as it is one of gender, immediately stands out. Their very stillness draws attention to itself almost as much as the frenzied motion below.


~ by Jared on March 10, 2023.

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