Les yeux sans visage
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras C
starring Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, François Guérin, Edith Scob
screenplay by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Jean Redon and Claude Sautet, based on the novel by Jean Redon
directed by Georges Franju
by Walter Chaw Five films changed the conversation in 1960. They were the fire, though the embers were stoked in the years leading up to them. Looking for signposts in the Eisenhower Fifties, you find the juvenile-delinquent cycle, plus the outré horror flicks of England's Hammer Studios, or Japan's tokusatsus, or France's Nouvelle Vague. More directly, you find a pair of films based on works by the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Diabolique and Vertigo. But in 1960, there was this quintet, each the product of parallel genesis, each proof after a fashion of a Jungian collective unconscious, perhaps, certainly that things long-simmering inevitably boil over. There's an idea in my head, put there by Ethan Mordden's Medium Cool, that everything that happened in the arts in the United States throughout the Fifties points to what was about to happen in our culture in the Sixties. Mordden is the source of my favourite teaching point when it comes to the two eras: that in the Fifties, if you didn't listen to Mother, society was doomed; and in 1960, if you listened to Mother, you were Psycho.
In 1960, the candle lit in the United States was Psycho, in Britain it was Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. Japan had Nobuo Nakagawa's Jigoku, Italy: Mario Bava's Black Sunday. And in France, it was Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage). Each harrowing in its own way--enough so for Powell in the UK that it effectively ended the legendary filmmaker's career, while Jigoku's releasing studio folded in its wake. Franju's film, if not Nakagawa's, is the least known of this group, though not the least of them. Objectively, it would be difficult to rank them, and foolish to try. Franju's picture succumbed to a generally squeamish audience. Although it garnered a European release, its censors perhaps softened by years of Hammer atrocity, for American distribution two years later it was bowdlerized, dubbed into English, and retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. It didn't acquire the reputation it has now until years later. Curiously, only Psycho gained mainstream acceptance, and gained it instantly. Searching for reasons why, I think there's something in Norman's ennui that allowed for distance. He is the punishment for inattention, the dire consequence of bad planning. The other films spoke of predators, whereas Norman is more the opportunist: He's scary, yes, but only if you stray off the road in the middle of a storm, seeking refuge in neglected backwaters. Jigoku, another Oedipal affair, marries Shakespeare to Sophocles in an orgy of depravity spurred by a mother's vengeance and lust. Black Sunday is a farmer's-daughter cautionary tale, its witch the doppelgänger of its virgin, while Peeping Tom finds another man-child destroyed by a parent--a father this time, rendering the voyeurism active and literally deadly. In Eyes Without a Face, the malefactor is also a father, one who hunts young women for their faces: the cosmetic remedy for his tragically-disfigured daughter. Psycho, an undisputed masterpiece, and regardless the number of showers it's cost viewers, is the trapdoor; the others in this annus horribilis are the spider.
Piecing together the history of these films reveals a cycle in which seeing, and ways of seeing, are privileged. The camera becomes actor, the image the locus and primary font of profundity. They're warnings--invasive, personal warnings. It's no accident that they all contain moments where their protagonists break the fourth wall to gaze directly upon the audience, regarding us regarding them and changing the conversation from "looking" to participation and, down the road, eventually, to pornography. In Eyes Without a Face, it happens in the first ten minutes (at the 7:20 mark, to be exact), when brilliant Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) glances up from his notes in the middle of a speech about tissue rejection and skin grafts, right dead into your eyes. Later, in the same scene, spectators in a mirrored ballroom reception area say to one another, "He's changed so much since his daughter vanished--he says such strange things." The price of genius is to be perpetually misunderstood, no?
This follows a rather remarkable sequence where a still-beautiful Alida Valli (38 at the time of filming), playing nurse/assistant/companion Louise, drives a corpse to its final watery reward. Passing them on the road at one point is a large truck I like to imagine is a butcher's truck that's somehow found its way from Franju's near-unwatchable documentary short Blood of the Beasts. Like Eyes Without a Face, like Psycho, like the bucolic pre-Hell sequences of Jigoku, the sylvan setting of Black Sunday, and the home movies of Peeping Tom, Blood of the Beasts says that there's true, ritualized atrocity alive side-by-side with images of salvation and Eden in our culture and art. David Lynch would make this idea the governing ethic of his work along with questions, raised by each of these films, about the nature of identity--the allure and the trap of masquerade. Both Black Sunday and Eyes Without a Face feature heroines sporting literal masks.
Louise, always wearing a pearl choker that becomes to a viewer versed in Dario Argento's fulsome period a constant portent of horror, is devoted to Dr. Genessier's mission to "resurrect" his "dead" daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), who, in truth, has only been disfigured in an accident the authorities believe killed her. More on Louise's pearl necklace: Beyond the promise of strangulation or worse, a sexual element to it looms large, an element that underscores the unnatural obsession the father has with restoring his daughter's beauty. He creates an uncomfortable love triangle between himself, his daughter, and her fiancé Jacques (François Guérin), whom Christiane calls twice, ostensibly just to hear his voice. (Narratively, it represents the beginning and the end of hope for her that they can ever be reunited.) The idea that a happy ending is contingent on looks is built on the father's perception, the degree to which the mad scientist character is granted a modicum of ownership and empathy the key thing Boileau and Narcejac brought to the project in adapting Jean Redon's novel for Franju.
It's madness, of course, the centring of the ego and identity in external appearance, and it speaks a little to the importance of the physical in masculine object choice, thus implying that the father has tied his daughter's worth to her sexual attractiveness. Louise becomes the conduit to a different point of view. Although she's complicit in finding victims Dr. Genessier will harvest for his daughter in a series of unsuccessful grafts, there's something in Valli's performance that suggests Louise feels doubt--that if we were to dig deep enough, the never-fulfilled promise of Valli's Hollywood foray as alternately the next Garbo or Selznick's new Ingrid Bergman bleeds through her character of an aging accomplice to the objectification of a younger, blonder, more blue-eyed version of herself.
Christiane is secreted away in her father's home like Josette Day in Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, forced by him to wear an expressionless mask uncannily like her pre-accident face. Comparisons of Eyes Without a Face to a particularly dark fairytale bear pregnant fruit. Set in a forest, essentially (notice the trees reaching like skeletal fingers to the sky outside a cemetery; consider Louise's lure to another victim that a room she's procured for her is "surrounded by trees"), it's alive with metaphors of beasts in cages (dogs and doves), a girl in a tower, a demon father/lover, dark familiars, and damsels in distress. In the film's pivotal scene, set in a basement surgical theatre, Franju watches unflinching as the good doctor cuts around a beautiful victim's face and skins it, whole, unblinking, then holds it to the camera. It briefly makes literal the viewer's identification with the victim, and it prefigures not just the similar-feeling Seconds, but also The Texas Chain Saw Massacre--which, frankly, has no scene so gory. Shocking then, it's shocking still. I suspect it will always be shocking for the suddenness with which Franju's nod to a Cocteau-vian artistry snaps back to Franju's more familiar documentary frankness.
It's the moment, too, where Eyes Without a Face transitions from its constant litany of reflective surfaces and mirrors reminding of illusion and appearances into flat, almost-uninflected body horror. A young victim kills herself once she realizes what's happened to her. Christiane meanwhile enacts a series of freeing rituals before freeing herself to be absorbed by the limitless night. The surgery is the demarcation as well between the early obsession with gothic angles and forced perspectives and subsequent nods to sprung, antiseptic science. Read a certain way, the picture is a marriage of the carnal and the mind, its final, startling image the doctor's corpse with one eye torn and staring, the other dim behind what's left of his glasses. It's the abomination of nature that civilization can't disguise, a suggestion that there's a thin line separating fairytale and science, both based as they are on faith and fear.
In the end, Eyes Without a Face is about not being able to hide: the doctor, from his arrogance and his desires; the daughter, from her (imparted) shame and (inherited) legacy. Like the best art, the kind that changes the conversation and pushes the needle that last centimetre into the marrow, it reveals an essential truth about its time, of course and inevitably, but it's timeless, too. It says that the things that drive us, all the ugliness and despair, the great beast lust and its consort pandering, all that hunger for acceptance personal and public, are constant across time and class, gender and creed. Watch as the film follows the doctor giving his talks, acting as God, only to show the daughter betrayed, finally, by the knowledge that her father has no answers, and may be a monster. Louise is dispatched when her pearl choker is penetrated, Christiane holds a dove in her hand as she frees the beasts her father has collected for probably some sort of vivisection (does it prefigure human simulacrum Roy Batty's closing monologue, or is it Rutger Hauer's improvised speech that it prefigures?), and it all becomes clear that it's not Christiane's soul that's been released--it's her innocence that's been lost.
The films of 1960 are the midpoint between Val Lewton's works of subsumed desire and the mayhem to follow. All bets are off, the 1950s are over. It's as if there's a collective agreement, signalled invisibly, that what was once covert will be explicit; what was hidden will be revealed. It's almost a declaration of courtesy--the open hand offered after a long time kept under the vest. Eyes Without a Face is unbelievable, really. It only ripens, deepens, complicates year on year.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
David Kalat's 2004 essay for The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Eyes Without a Face gets recycled for this Blu-ray edition and offers, in the Criterion style, a nice overview of the picture from a respected voice in the field. If I were to take issue with any of it, it would be with Kalat's assertion that Franju, apart from his Nouvelle Vague compatriots, was a fan rather than a critic, more interested in contributing the genre flicks he loved than in testing his theories. That's, to me, a disappointing read of not only the French New Wave but film critics as well--these ones, especially, and others (the good ones) in general. It's glib, and the rest of the essay doesn't read like that, making me wonder if this is something Kalat truly believes, or if he's merely wrestling with the same disconnect he identifies contemporary critics of Franju's work wrestling with: namely, how could a serious artist be working in the horror genre? As far as rhetorical missteps go, alas, it's crippling, and makes me regard the rest of his piece with a jaundiced, let's say poisoned, eye. Better is a new essay from Spider author Patrick McGrath that reflects on the film's interplay of science and patriarchy. It's good, and you trust the source.
The disc-based supplementary material begins with the aforementioned Le sang des betes/Blood of the Beasts (23 mins., 1080p), restored with the same meticulous care that went into Eyes Without a Face proper. Here, scenes of butchers engaged in their grim duties in a filthy abattoir are juxtaposed against children at play. Peckinpah does something similar in his sadistic opening to The Wild Bunch; Franju's influence only expands the more you scrutinize it. "Franju on the Film" (3 mins., 1080i) is a quick excerpt where the spry director, who died in 1987, discusses this infamous short, while "Edith Scob" (9 mins., 1080p) features the still-vibrant actress speaking in a brand-new interview about her connection with Franju, the trials of the film's prosthetic makeup, and how it all led to her feeling an isolation on the set that only aided her performance.
"Le Fantastique" (6 mins., 1080i) sees Franju differentiating fantasy from horror--which, by itself, challenges Kalat's assertion that Franju wasn't squeamish about being seen as a horror-movie director. Lastly, "Boileau-Narcejac" (8 mins., 1080i) excerpts from a longer documentary wherein the mystery writers discuss the origins and nature of their collaboration. It's all very informative and enjoyable, but with a film like this, there seems a great missed opportunity for a scholarly commentary and more contextual examinations that is surprising, considering this is Criterion we're talking about.
At least Eyes Without a Face itself is presented gorgeously, in a pillarboxed 1.66:1, 1080p transfer sourced from the 35mm camera negative. Dynamic range is broad and rich, grain resolves beautifully, and scenes in the operating theatre are so minutely detailed that you can count every pore on Valli's face and every bead of sweat on Genessier's skeevy, pervy forehead. (It goes without saying the facelift money-shot is more nauseating than ever.) The reflective surfaces in the opening half of the film gleam like never before, from the wood cabinet in the gendarmes' office to the glass in the viewing room at the morgue. What was insinuation is now clearly a theme. Print defects are minimal, digital artifacts invisible to the naked eye. The attendant, uncompressed centre-channel mono audio is likewise free of distortions, with Maurice Jarre's cacophonous and demented carnival theme coming through with disturbing clarity.
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