Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: Eyes Without a Face (1960)

My experience with French cinema is fairly limited. I'm familiar with some of the main themes and leading filmmakers; I've seen some of the New Wave classics, like Breathless and Le Samouraï, and modern ones like Amelie. Still, I feel my knowledge of French film is lacking.

I'm grateful, then, that when I was researching Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage) I found film historian David Kalat's essay for the Criterion Collection DVD. Kalat covers the history of the film and the career of director Georges Franju, and some very good points about the French film industry at the time. It's a short essay, and recommended reading.

Eyes... follows the plans and experiments of a brilliant medical doctor, and his attempts to repair the horribly-scarred face of his daughter (in a car accident when he was driving) by transplanting the faces of unwilling young female donors. She is hidden away in his country house after having "escaped" from the hospital. One of the donors dies from her injuries and is dumped into the river by Dr. Génessier’s assistant. When her body is found, and the doctor is called in to identify the body, presumed to be his daughter, it's his chance to officially declare Christiane dead -- allowing him more time to perfect his transplantation techniques...

There are two points in Kalat's essay that I would like to elaborate on:
The key was in finding the right tone. Feuillade’s genius was in his affectless, matter-of-fact depictions of the wildest, pulpiest lunacy. Franju inverted the equation, while still juxtaposing the fantastique with the mundane, the impossible with the everyday. Franju was on record that “I’m led to give documentary realism the appearance of fiction.” Or, put another way: “Kafka becomes terrifying from the moment it is documentary. In documentary I work the other way round.” Any way you slice it, Franju was fixated on the seam between actuality and fantasy.
Part of what makes Eyes... so effective is this realism. I find the matter-of-fact, realistic style of film-making very compelling and unsettling, particularly for horror and suspense movies. It's the difference between The Blair Witch and Blair Witch 2, as an example. Eyes... doesn't flow in the same way as "horror" films from the time. Only the face transplant scene has any gore, and even then it's very tame by modern standards (looking more like grape jelly to me than blood). The film is much more ethereal with the ever-present darkness, fog and isolation. It adds to the effect of Dr. Génessier’s guilt and obsession. I think this is where we see some of the French film-making style in action.
Edith Scob had worked with Franju on Head Against the Wall in a small but memorable role, and the two became a team: Franju cast her in four more films after this one. Yes, Edith is beautiful and vulnerable, but beyond that she has an intangible air of mystery about her. Franju said of her: “She is a magic person. She gives the unreal reality.”
Scob's character Christiane is the key to the film. She drifts through the film as things happen around her, until the end when she acts, almost as an avenging angel, but gently.

In the U.S. Eyes... was cut slightly, evocatively re-titled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and run on a double-bill with the U.S./Japanese co-production The Manster.

Eyes Without a Face is available in an excellent special edition DVD from the Criterion Collection. This is the source of Netflix's streaming version, which is the method I used to watch it.


Dawg said...

Holy cow. I read your review, which is great, as usual, and I wondered to myself, "Self? I wonder if Billy Idol's 'Eyes Without a Face' is somehow related to this film?

Here is the chorus:

"Les yeux sans visage eyes without a face
Les yeux sans visage eyes without a face
Les yeux sans visage eyes without a face
Got no human grace your eyes without a face."

The rest of the song speaks of Vegas, holy water and gigolos, so I'm not sure it's a direct tribute, but I think the chorus is evidence enough.

ANYHOW. Your review also got me wondering as to when the Criterion Collection is going to be ending on Netflix. In case anyone doesn't know, they're moving their streaming content to Hulu Plus since Netflix wouldn't give them room for any "extras" nor could you search for "Criterion" to find their films - Hulu Plus gives them both of these, apparently.

I don't like the fragmentation, but I can see Criterion's point.

Once I get moved in to my new place, Steve, I humbly suggest that we organize some sort of regular movie night and be able to discuss this sort of thing in person, with other persons, although the thought of human-to-human interaction scares me.

Also, a digression - attended the River Bend film fest and was in the Q&A for "Red Lilly." Your 25 whacks were the highlight.

Kaiju said...

Thanks! I have to assume that the song was inspired in part by the movie, at least because of the lyrics in French. How he gets to Vegas from there, I don't know.

I thought there was something on Criterion's Facebook page about Netflix streaming ending this year. Not sure of an exact date. The license expiration dates might be rolling based on the titles.

I heartily agree on a regular movie club meeting. That would be fab! Glad to hear that RBFF was a good show. I wish I could have been there.