Saturday, October 31, 2015

Eyes Without A Face / Le Yeux Sans Visage (1960)

Directed by: Georges Franju
Screenplay: Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet, and Pierre Gascar; based on the novel by Jean Redon
Starring: Edith Scob, Pierre Brassuer, Alida Valli, Francois Guerin, Juliette Mayniel
Running Time: 90 minutes

In the 1950’s, the French weren’t known for producing horror films. French cinema, after all, was the home of the New Wave, Goddard, and Truffaut, they didn’t have time for such “artless” movies. But it just so happened that during this decade, a studio in England was finding world-wide success by cranking out that very sort of film that the French had stigmatized. That would be Hammer Studios, and needless to say, when the French film industry saw the way Hammer was raking in cash hand over fist with the likes of THE HORROR OF DRACULA and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, they started to have a change of opinion on that so-called “disreputable genre.” “Money talks,” to quote AC/DC. The first producer to jump at this was Jules Borkon, who had purchased the film rights to a novel by Jean Redon titled LES YEUX SANS VISAGE / EYES WITHOUT A FACE and enlisted one of the founders of the famous French film club Cinematheque Francaise, Georges Franju, to direct it. Franju was a documentary filmmaker who had made a name for himself for such reactionary works as THE BLOOD OF BEASTS, PASSING BY THE LORRIANE, and HOTEL DES INVALIDES (which he fondly refers to as his “slaughter trilogy”) and had moved on to making fiction films with LE TETE CONTRE LES MURES / HEAD AGAINST THE WALL, a film set in a mental hospital which was released as THE KEEPERS on our side of the Atlantic. Thing about Franju is that unlike the other notable filmmakers that were members of Cinematheque, who were former film critics who decided to take that old comment section refrain of “Well if you didn’t like it, make one of your own!” to heart, Franju was simply a cinema buff through and through and jumped at it when Borkon offered him a chance to make his own addition to cinema of the “fantastique.”

There were to be some restrictions, Borkon told Franju. While Borkon wanted a horror film that could compete with the blood-spattered gothics Hammer was putting out, the film couldn’t show any real bloodshed. That was would be a big no-no with the French film censors. He couldn’t depict animals being tortured. That wouldn’t fly with the English and Americans. Furthermore, the film could not feature a mad scientist performing horrible experiments on innocent people. The Germans…for obvious reasons. With those set in place, Borkon handed Franju the story of a mad scientist who experiments on animals and kidnaps beautiful women so he can cut their faces off and told him to make a movie out of it.  
The film starts with a completely wordless opening that does a marvelous job of setting the tone. It’s night time in Paris and a nervous woman (Alida Valli, the intimidating dance instructor from SUSPIRIA) is driving an old Citroen taxi up to the Seine River, where she dumps a woman’s corpse that she’s had disguised as a passenger in the back seat. The corpse was so completely covered by a trench coat and hat that we can’t get much of a look at her but if we look close enough, we can get a tiny glimpse of her face and whatever has happened to them couldn’t have been pleasant. The next day, respected surgeon Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brassuer) is called away from a speaking engagement by the Parisian police. They’ve found that body that the woman disposed of and there’s very good chance that it could be Genessier’s daughter Christiane, who disappeared following a car accident that ended up horribly disfiguring her. Thing is, the body could also be that of another missing woman, the damage done to her face an attempt to hide her identity. Both Genessier and the missing woman’s father are called in to identify the body, but Genessier gets there first and confirms that yes, it’s Christiane, before leaving to make funeral arrangements. Some of the details don’t completely add up but Genessier’s identification is enough for the police to conclude that Christiane committed suicide and consider the case closed. It’s at Christiane’s funeral, however, that we get the idea that there’s more going on here, because attending with Dr. Genessier is his assistant Louise, who is the nervous woman from the opening. When we look at the way the two of them act when they are alone after the funeral is over, it’s becomes clear to us that that whatever Louise is doing, she’s doing so on Genessier’s orders. It’s when Genessier returns to his home, a mansion located near the clinic where he works, that our suspicions are confirmed: the body in his daughter’s crypt is that of the missing woman and Christiane (Edith Scob) is very much alive. Seems Genessier is responsible for the death of the other woman, who died while he was performing “an experiment” on her. However, the woman’s death ends up working to Genessier’s advantage. By making everyone believe that Christiane is dead, Genessier doesn’t have to worry about anyone, such as her fiancĂ© Jacques (Francois Guerin), stumble across his work in the process of searching for her.

It’s work of particularly grisly sort. Genessier is convinced that a new skin grafting technique that he has developed could restore Christiane’s ruined face, which he has her hide behind a featureless white mask. Problem is, this technique requires a donor that’s close in age and physical appearance to Christiane and needless to say, most young women aren’t going to give up their skin willingly. That’s where Louise comes in, stalking women that fit the necessary body type and luring them to Genessier’s mansion where he can drug them and surgically remove their faces. Louise is horrified by this but goes along with it because she’s grateful to the doctor for restoring her own disfigured face (the sole remnant of which is a tiny scar she keeps hidden with a pearl choker) and because she’s become something of a surrogate mother to Christiane during her time with Genessier. A second woman falls into the pair’s trap and it seems that this time, the facial transplant takes. The second victim obviously doesn’t appreciate receiving the Castor Troy treatment and ends up either committing suicide or falling to her death in an escape attempt, so now Louise and Genessier have another body to dispose of. More troublingly, though, is during dinner a few days later that Genessier begins to notice something has gone wrong with the skin graft. Within a couple of weeks, Christiane’s body rejects it and her father is forced to remove it.

This leaves Christiane on the edge of a suicidal despair and in her desperation, she calls Jacques. Jacques, obviously, is more than a little weirded out by hearing his supposedly dead fiancĂ© calling his name over the phone and goes to the police. While talking with them, Jacque’s catches the description of the woman last seen with missing woman and damned if it doesn’t sound a lot like Louise.  Realizing that this may be the break they need, the police blackmail a shoplifter into acting as bait for Genessier, hoping to catch him in the act. Unfortunately for our poor shoplifter, Genessier is able to cover his tracks well enough to send the police looking elsewhere, and she ends up on the good doctor’s operating table. Now her survival will depend on whether or not Christiane can stand being complicit in whatever crimes her father commits in her name any longer.
Like I said earlier, Franju was put under several restrictions when he was given EYES WITHOUT A FACE, but it’s the sign of damn good filmmaker when they use the limits placed on them to discover the considerable spaces they can work in.  To deal with the whole “mad scientist” angle, Franju and his screenwriters (which included the writing duo behind DIABOLIQUE and Hitchcock’s VERTIGO) made a notable change from the novel: moving the story’s focus away from Genessier and put more emphasis on Christiane. Doing so ends up having the effect of helping us understand more why Genessier is willing to do such horrible things. See, the key detail here is that it was Genessier who was driving (“like a lunatic”) when the accident that disfigured Christiane occurred and the distraught young woman blames him for it. It’s the anguish brought about by his love and guilt that drives him to such extremes and had Christiane not stopped him would have likely lead him to continue butchering woman in his pursuit, unable to admit that his technique may not work and there could simply be no hope for her. What we have then, is a mad scientist movie where the mad scientist isn’t mad, but haunted. (It’s no accident, that Christiane, dressed all in white and wearing that unnervingly serene looking mask, is every bit the ghost you’d find roaming the halls of some decaying old gothic estate.) I think it’s telling that when EYES WITHOUT A FACE was released in the United States under the thoroughly blunt-instrument title of THE HORROR CHAMBER OF DR. FAUTUS (Really guys? Dr. Fautus?) the only scene removed had nothing to do with any of the film’s violence but a moment in where we see Genessier comforting one of his patients, a little boy, and his distraught mother. Apparently we’re fine with showing people being monsters but God forbid we have to deal with the uncomfortable truth that monsters can have a human side as well.

With that one major change from the source, one of the hurdles Franju had to deal with was overcome and the animal experimentation aspect of the story wasn’t that difficult to work around either. We see that Genessier has numerous stray dogs, some covered in bandages, locked up in part of his hidden lab and we see one after he’s experimented on them. It’s nothing too messy and tells us all we need to know, so nothing to get upset over. Which leaves us with how the bloodshed was going to be handled. Make no mistake, EYES WITHOUT A FACE is a violent movie. This is after all, a movie about a guy cutting women’s faces off. But there’s a reason why decades later, after advances in special effects technology and relaxing of restrictions on violent content would have dulled the edge of other movies, it’s still so incredibly effective and squirm inducing. A lot of that, I think, comes from the fact that EYES WITHOUT A FACE is just so low-key and quiet of a movie. Its tone is somber and melancholy (in that way that only the French can do) and the film goes long stretches without dialogue. Couple that with the fact that we’ve probably conditioned ourselves to not expect to see somebody get a scalpel in the throat or their face chewed off by dogs in a black and white movie from the time, and so when the shocks come, they’re genuinely shocking, like a slap to the face. Furthermore, as noted earlier, Franju made documentaries before he moved on to film; his first, THE BLOOD OF BEASTS, being about the inner workings of Parisian slaughterhouse. In an interview excerpt that came on the Criterion disc, Franju also discusses how the single most horrific film he ever watched was footage of a trepanation being performed on a conscious patient with a brain tumor. You can definitely see how both informed his approach here, as the whole film is shot with the kind of clinical detachment you’d find in a medical documentary. This level of remove, I feel, was a major factor in getting the film past the censors, however, in terms of how it affects the views, it has the opposite effect of what you’d think. It forces us to face (no pun intended) the violence being done rather than disengaging from it. I’m not surprised that people at screenings were actually fainting when EYES infamous face surgery scene came along. It’s excruciating to watch, poking and prodding at every subconscious nightmare that we’ve had about going under the knife and we’re with it every single step. The scene is probably even worse, if, like me, you’ve had family members hurt by a botched surgery. Really, this where a lot of the horror in EYES stems from. Vitally important as it is, Franju is forcing to face that there can be something dehumanizing and wrong feeling about medical science. (Part of the reason hospitals creep me out.) Take a look at that contraption the shoplifter gets hooked up to test her brain patterns. Or most effectively, how about the scene that details the deterioration of Christiane’s condition when the graft fails via a photographic montage. The calm manner in which Dr. Genessier throws out such gruesome sounding terms as “heterograft,” “ulceration,” and “necrosis” as we see Christiane’s face get worse and worse would be bad enough without the added touch of this being a father talking about his daughter’s face rotting off. Brrr… You’d likely have to turn to David Cronenberg to find anything that does as good a job of tapping this vein of medicinal horror.

EYES WITHOUT A FACE was met with considerable controversy on release; critics who didn't condemn it outright either having to jump through hoops to justify their appreciation, one English critic nearly getting fired for praising the film and another famously arguing that a respectable French filmmaker couldn't have made something disreputable as a horror film and EYES WITHOUT A FACE was actually a film noir. Anyone else getting flashbacks to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS'S magical transformation into a "psychological thriller" once it was nominated for Oscars? But, as with a number of films that stir up the hornets nest because they force people outside their comfort zone, it has endured and influenced a number of filmmakers sense. I've never heard Cronenberg talk about this film but it stands to reason that he'd be a fan, right? You can chalk it up to this film and that shot with Christiane and the doves as the reason why there's a scene involving birds in the every damn John Woo movie. Can't blame him, it's a fantastic image. John Carpenter was so taken with Edith Scob's eerie, spectral performance that it influenced the creation of his own faceless wraith, Michael Myers. (One a remnant of humanity, the other completely void of it.) Maybe, it's because I saw it in the same weekend as CRIMSON PEAK that I could trace the influence of this film's use of sudden intrusions of violence to Guillermo Del Toro's. Hell, it was Del Toro's recommending the film on twitter that finally motivated me to check it out.  (P.S.: Go see CRIMSON PEAK. It's good!) If what they say about imitation and flattery is true, well, notorious Euro-sleaze director Jess Franco is a huge fan, as he spent a good chunk of his career making the like of FACELESS and THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF that are remakes of EYES in all but name. Could explain why I'm not too hot on the American title, sounds a little too much like one of Franco's knock-offs.

Once you see it, you'll understand why. EYES is one of those films that sticks with you after its over. It ends rather abruptly, with Christiane's fate unknown, and some people may be off-put by that. For me, after mulling it over for a day or two, I found that I actually am quite fond of its ending. Strange to say about an ending that features a young woman turning against and killing her family but bear with me. While EYES'S conclusion isn't what you would call uplifting, I do feel that there's a hopeful message at the heart of it. A lot of it has to do with Jacques final scene. Believing Christiane truly gone forever, Jacques decides to move on, with one of the detectives commenting that he's young and has his whole life ahead of him as he departs. To me, that's what EYES WITHOUT A FACE is really about. The events of the past change us, tragedies harm us, and we will carry the effects of that forever. There's no going back and "fixing" that. Dr. Genessier and Louise tried that and look where that got them: they became murderers and ultimately were destroyed by the very person they damned themselves for. The best thing you can do is pick yourself up, move on, and live your life. even if it means facing an unknowable future.

A Little Something Extra:
What? You thought I was going to post that Billy Idol song? Now, I would have gone with "Eyes Without A Face" by The Flesh Eaters from THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD soundtrack but after giving it a listen, I realized it wasn't my particular favorite song from that; so the hell with it, here's "Surfin' Dead" by The Cramps. Remember folks, life is short and filled with stuff.


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