Sunday, November 6, 2011

Georges Franju | Les yeux sans visage (Eyes without a Face)

the beauty of her own beast
by Douglas Messerli

Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Jean Redon, and Claude Sautet (adaptation, based on a fiction by Jean Redon), Pierre Gascar (dialogue), Georges Franju (director) Les yeux sans visage (Eyes without a Face) / 1960, USA 1962

I saw this classic "horror/science fiction" film at the AFI Fest on November 5, 2011, selected by the Guest Artistic Director of that year, Pedro Almodóvar, who also introduced the four films he had chosen. The Franju film had obviously been one source for his The Skin I Live In, playing in the theaters at the time.

     Almodóvar even complimented the audience (a bit sparse for the large Egyptian Ringler Theater) for its taste, speaking of film's formal qualities. "There's only one scene that is a bit gory," he declared. "But generally the film is elegant and understated."

     Basically, I agree with Almodóvar, and would rather release the film from its horror and science fiction genres—my least favorite of film genres in any event—and speak of it more as did its director, as a film of "anguish," much quieter in its mood and more penetrating than any horror film. The fact that Les yeux sans visage was issued in the US dubbed into English and retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, shown in a double feature with The Manster, certainly did not help its audiences move beyond the attacks made by some UK audiences. In Scotland, so it is said, seven audience members swooned during the famed heterografting scene (Franju's witty answer: "Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts."). British critic Isabel Quigly, labeled it "the sickest film since I started film criticism." Americans were not far behind in their howls.

     Today with gore and violence so graphically presented in all films it is hard to understand the outrage! Or, let us say, given Franju's dramatically poetic presentation of horrific events, events of "anguish," perhaps we can easily comprehend the outrage. This is not some silly conception of a Hollywood B film studio, but a tightly-structured and quite beautifully filmed work, which suggests far more than it actually portrays.

     Indeed, its "hero"—if the Frankenstein-like doctor can be described as such—is very much a creature of anguish. He has, after all, been responsible for an accident in which his daughter's face has evidently been so burned and scarred that little skin has remained; only her eyes have been saved. Living in a large villa near to the mental clinic which he runs, Doctor Génessier, (Pierre Brasseur) has somewhat secretly been experimenting with skin grafts (something, as Almodóvar points out, we take for granted today), attempting to find a way to graft them upon his patients without having the tissue rejected. Mostly he experiments on large dogs stored away in the basement near his laboratory, but he must also find human subjects so that he can restore his daughter's face. He has already succeeded on his assistant, Louise (the stunning Aida Valli), upon whom he more dependent that we might imagine and who, we discover, is strangely willing to meet all his demands, including sharing his lie that his daughter, Christine (Edith Scob), is missing.

     The film begins with frightening music by composer Maurice Jarre, as Louise drives down a country lane, lined by trees, whose silhouettes puncture the nighttime sky. She seems terrified by something: perhaps the rain or just the occasional truck whose bright lights nearly fracture the car's back window. For a few moments we might even fear that she will go hurling off the road. Gradually, however, we discover that there is another passenger in the back seat, a man, it appears, who seems to be sleeping. As the journey progresses, however, we begin to perceive that something far worse is occurring, and, as she approaches a river with a small falls, we watch her drag the man from the car and toss him into the water.

     A public lecture by the Doctor about the very subject of his experiments titillates and intrigues his audience, but the Doctor has no time after to chat. As one elderly admirer speaks to him of the future, he interrupts "The future, Madame, is something we should have started on a long time ago," disappearing into the night. He has been called by the police, reporting that they believe they have found his missing daughter or perhaps another missing girl, Mlle. Tessot, whose father they have called in as well. The Doctor expediently identifies the body as being that of daughter, increasing the anguish of the waiting Mr. Tessot, whose daughter is still missing.   

     We soon discover the truth. Christine remains locked away in the villa, forced to wear a mask over what is left of her face, while the girl buried in the Génessier fault is the missing Tessot girl, whose face was clearly removed in another failed experiment by the Doctor.

     The most horrifying of events follows, as Louise, wearing always a pearl chocker around her neck to hide the scars of her surgery (Almodóvar suggested that the necklace itself had become almost grafted to her neck), stalks a young girl she has seen on the street, who has a face not unlike Christine's former milk-white skin. Little by little, Louise insinuates herself into this stranger's life, inviting Edna to a performance (she has an extra ticket), and finally meeting her over lunch, declaring that she has found an apartment, for which Edna has been searching.

     The "apartment," of course, is in the villa. Edna, disliking the long trip from the city and sensing that something is amiss, attempts to leave, but is quickly anesthesized by the Doctor. He is eager to attempt the grafting once again.

     That scene is the gory cutting and pasting of the entire face of which the critics so railed. But even here, more is implied that shown, as pencil and forceps (called for again and again) become the focus of the scene, more than the skin-raising result. This time, however, the Doctor and Louise are convinced of their success. They even will allow the victim, Edna, sustenance, and, possibly, some more time to live, but she, recognizing the horror of their acts upon her, escapes, jumping to her suicide from a high window. Together, both Doctor and his assistant, take her body into the family vault, dropping it with a heavy thump upon the others buried within.

     Christine's scars seem to heal. The transplant appears to have been a success, and the haunted Doctor and Louise, aware of their horrible deeds, wonder even if they might now be cleansed of the past. While examining his daughter's face soon after, however, the Doctor detects signs of a slight rosiness in the checks, suggesting that the new face has been rejected by the patient. Within weeks, Christine's beautiful face begins to darken and wither away. She must return to her ghostly mask. Obviously, another woman will have to be found.

     This time, the plot is a bit more complicated, entailing the Doctor's clinic, Christine's former lover, Jacques Vernon, who works in the clinic, the police, and a young shoplifter, whose blue-eyes and blonde hair fit the bill of the next victim.

     I will spare the reader all the details, except to say the new girl, Paulette, is released from the clinic unharmed, suggesting to Jacques and the police, that the Doctor has not been involved. Louise, however, picks up the young girl on her way back to Paris, delivering her, like the others, to the laboratory.

     Yet the interruption of the police visit to the clinic, as they wonder why Paulette has not yet returned home, gives time for the anesthesia to wear off, and Paulette awakens tied to the operating table. Her struggles arouse pity in Louise, waiting upon another table, for a new face. Louise, who is torn between her desires for a new possibilities for life and accepting death, has long been horrified by the events surrounding her, and determines to free Paulette, just as Louise returns to the  operating room. With the same knife Louise used to break Paulette's bonds, she stabs Louise in her pearl-encircled neck, and in a mad trance, enters the kennel, one by one freeing the wild dogs on which the Doctor has experimented.

     At that very moment, the Doctor returning home and wondering at the excited barking of his dogs, opens the door to the kennel, the beasts leaping out upon him. When they have finished, we get a glimpse of the Doctor lying dead, his own face having been torn to bits, his eyes staring out in disbelief and wonderment.

     Christine frees the birds the Doctor has also caged, some of them gathering around her, sitting upon her shoulders, flying near to create a vision that reminds us very much of a painting of the young girl hanging in the villa hallway. If nothing else, the girl without a face has finally turned into the image of her imagined being, becoming the beauty of her own beast.

Los Angeles, November 6, 2011

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