Zoomisia: Madame Babylas aime les animaux (1911)

In English, the film is known, perhaps tellingly, as Mrs. Pussy Loves Animals. Released by Pathé in 1911, this is an example of early French farce in which animals serve as living props, the objects of Madame Babylas’s excessive affection. The film thrives on a transparent pathology: Mme Babylas’s filling up of her apartment with more and more animals–guinea pigs, caged birds, ducks, and a pig–displaces her childless, supposedly sexless, marital relationship. In the end, an angry Monsieur Babylas wreaks his revenge by setting a tiger on his wife’s collection of herbivores. A hectic chase sequence ensues in which the tiger attacks the pig, and leads to the film’s closing shots of the bandaged pig, sprawled seductively across a bed, fussed over by the corpulent Mme Babylas.

The Babylas household becomes, in the final shot, a frightening place in which animals are no longer just substitute children, but victims of what looks a lot like Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, played for laughs. Viewed today, from the distance of time and the safe consensus on “animal welfare,” the film reveals not Mme Babylas’s zoophilic pathology, but the pathology of film itself: the compulsion and cruelty so central to our relations to animals, and the power of animus to animate–to move images, the essence of film.

Its title states that Mme Babylas loves animals, and we soon learn she loves them too much, to the detriment of her normal desires within the framework of a proper, heterosexual marriage. Her husband’s revenge, carried out through and against animals, uses the fetishistic objects of Mme Babylas’s affection against her. Strange, then, that the violent act of revenge does not cure her. Instead, it exacerbates her condition by providing it with new avenues and even more perverse outlets.

Might a different reading of the film be in order, one that suggests that husband and wife in fact present a most compatible and even exemplary partnership? After all, if it wasn’t for M Babylas, his wife might have stuck with collecting small animals and merely keeping them indoors. M Babylas introduces a new and terrifying thrill to their domestic love nest: an exotic predator, an obvious avatar for Babylas himself.

Image

Madam Babylas aime les animaux (Alfred Machin, France, 1911, silent, b/w, 9′)

This titillating game between husband and wife that sees their desire intensify in the presence of captive animals casts doubts on the meaning of amour. We are not dealing here, it seems, with a woman’s perverse sentimentality manifested through an overly feminized love of animals, and a man’s rational humanity that necessarily rejects them. Neither zoophilic nor zoophobic, what gives this film its farcical vitality is a deep-seated hatred of animals, a “zoomisia,” characteristic of a number of early animal films that predate modernity’s coverup of the productive forces of hatred (through animal cuteness, as dispassionate scientific observation, or the discourse of animal welfare). This film captures the creative exuberance of violence as an engine of cinema and filmic attraction.

You can see Madame Babylas aime les animaux on day two of  Screening Nature at the Whitechapel Gallery, on Sunday the 19th of May, in the program called “Love.”


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