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October 2015

Eyes Without A Face

cast: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Edith Scob, Juliette Mayniel, and Rene Genin

director: Georges Franju

90 minutes (15) 1960
BFI DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Eyes Without A Face

Curled-lip ex-Generation X rocker Billy Idol had a glam-punk hit single with a song titled Eyes Without A Face, about riding "on a bus on a psychedelic trip, reading murder books, trying to stay hip." It has no direct connection to French movie Les yeux sans visage, but it's nice to conjecture that this noir movie has so imprinted itself onto cult credibility that Idol felt his carefully-contrived image could benefit from its dark allure.

Gaunt trees move white against black sky. As she drives through the night the woman in the headscarf adjusts her rear-view mirror to check the slumped back-seat passenger, hat pulled low. She slows her Citroen CV and halts by a wharf on the river Seine, drags the woman's body from the car, down to the water's edge, and throws her in. It's an effectively dark opening to a disturbing film. Director Georges Franju was a cinephile with a respectful debt not only to expressionists Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau - as well as the experimental art-films of Jean Cocteau, but also to the shock-effects of surrealists such as his friend Andre Breton, who saw art as a subversive tool.

To this end, when the French government commissioned Franju to produce three early documentary films, he turned them into fierce denunciations of what they were intended to celebrate. Le sang des betes (aka: The Blood Of Beasts, 1948) revealed the dark horror of the Paris abattoir, Passing By The Lorraine (aka: En passant par la Lorraine, 1950), showed the ugly environmental effects of French industrial modernisation, while Hotel des Invalides (1951) - rather than a reverential tribute to war veterans became a savage anti-militarist text. Yet once established as a film auteur, Franju's second full-length movie became the one by which he's best remembered.

There's a heightened realism to Eyes Without A Face, undercut by weird symbolisms, fusing elements of pulp exploitation with poetic pathos and genuinely unsettling sequences of horrific surgery. When the naked body is pulled from the Seine, her face is "an open wound" as though savaged by rats, or an auto-accident, yet the wounds are cleanly inflicted, as though incised by a scalpel. Only the eyes remain intact.

Two fathers are summoned to the morgue to identify the dead woman. Dapper, bespectacled Dr Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), with neat black beard, is called away from delivering a lecture on physical rejuvenation through 'heterograft' - transplanting living bodily organs. Creepily formal and inexpressive, he identifies the body as that of his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), although he knows it isn't her. He repeats the lie to the other anxious father, Emile (Rene Genin), fully aware that it is the man's missing daughter, Simone Tessot, on the mortuary slab.

Plastic surgery was not highly developed in 1960. Following the funeral, Genessier returns through secure wrought-iron gates to his clinic, and his adjoining gothic chateau. Up the stairs, high in a room with caged birds, the real Christiane lies in white; face down on the bed. Her as-yet unseen face hideously disfigured in a car-wreck for which she holds her father responsible. Genessier has promised her a new face. The girl in the morgue had died after an unsuccessful attempt at facial transplant.

In fact the world's first partial surgical face transplant did not happen until 2005, carried out in France by Belgian plastic surgeon Benoit Lengele. Five years after that, a full face transplant operation was carried out by a 30-strong medical team in Spain. Genessier's lecture makes it clear he appreciates the problems of what we'd now term tissue rejection, suggesting either powerful X-radiation to nuke intransigent antibodies - risking killing the patient, or a total blood transfusion. After his second, and apparently successful, face-transplant he cautions Christiane to "smile... not too much"!

The Citroen CV from the first sequence is parked in the chateau garage. The woman in the shiny black patent-leather coat is Louise (Alida Valli), Genessier's selflessly supportive assistant, loyally indebted to him because he'd repaired her own damaged face, the betraying scar-tissue hidden behind her pearl choker. She acts as his Burke and Hare, prospecting future face-donors. There are no mirrors in Christiane's room, but she glimpses her reflection in darkened windows, or on a knife-blade. She hides her face behind a white mask that gives her the manikin-look of the Cybernauts in the original TV Avengers, or the Autons from Doctor Who. She also wears a long white gown that gives her the eerie appearance of a moving statue, gliding as if on castors. The chateau is haunted by the sound of baying dogs. She discovers a vault of caged dogs in the chateau's basement. Her father uses the strays for clinical trials. They are not repelled by her masked disfigurement.

She yearns for her fiancé, Jacque Vernon (Francois Guerin). As a doctor at the clinic, he attends her 'funeral' and believes her dead. Yet she can't resist phoning him, saying nothing into the mouthpiece, and leaving him uneasy. While Louise is already prospecting a next victim, smoking a Gauloises in her Citroen while eyeing up girls on the street, she watches the theatre queue waiting to see Eugene Ionesco's play Victimes De Devoir (aka: Victims Of Duty, 1953) - Franju making a direct cultural reference to this absurdist avant-garde descent into hell. Louise later rendezvous beneath the Eiffel tower with Swiss migrant-worker Edna (Juliette Mayniel), and spirits her away to the chateau where she's chloroformed and carried through a secret door into Genessier's basement operating theatre.

Genessier is not a sympathetic figure. He has fame and fortune, as the funeral mourner's gossip reveals, but he has no wife or daughter. Both are supposedly dead. He's also abrupt and violent, striking the loyal Louise across the face when she displeases him. Even tormented daughter Christiane suspects that he regards her as little more than a convenient experimental subject, "a human guinea pig." When he announces "a success such as this, god, you can't put a price on it," there's real ambiguity. Does the value lie in the gift itself, or purely in his financial gain? She's uneasy and suicidally haunted. Yet she's conflicted, running her fingers possessively over the unconscious Edna's face. It's her touch - waking Edna and causing her to revive, that provides the first fading-into-focus on-screen glimpse of Christiane's mutilated face.

Eyes Without A Face may be a 1960 film, and we've since become immune to horrifically explicit digital violence, but the surgery that follows is disturbingly nasty. Predictably, it created outrage at the time. He inscribes pencil-lines around her face. He sweats, breathing heavily as Louise mops the blood-flow and passes him "scalpel, pliers". Then he draws off the face...

The score is by Maurice Jarre - father of electronic-music exponent Jean Michel Jarre who scored a huge international success with Oxygene (1976). Maurice went on to score other, higher-profile international hit movies, including Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965), as well as the amazingly extravagant Barbarella (1968). Yet his jaunty, almost silent-movie comic soundtrack for Franju provides one of the early codes to the film's oddness.

Following the face-transplant, Edna escapes her cell, falls from a high window, and is killed - her dead eyes staring from the bandaged face. Louise helps Genessier inter her body in the same midnight crypt as his earlier victim. Yet there's an inexplicable oddness as Louise pauses to watch a plane flying through the dark skies above. This is another code, a metaphor putting various film-elements into contradiction. The gothic crypt setting is Poe, via Roger Corman. Set against the jarring modernity of night-flights. The theme of animated body-parts in Mary Shelley - via Universal horror, yet carried out under the auspices of surgical modernity, only a decade away from actuality. The music serves to underscore this deliberate aberration.

Although this transplant initially seems to have worked, casebook photos spanning 25 days show necrosis developing, then ulcers and infection in the graft tissue. In the grotesque tragedy of placing the mask back over her face, despair drives Christiane to phone fiancÚ Jacques again. This time he recognises her when she breathes his name. But the police are already piecing clues together, and in the final sequence, they set up shoplifter Paulette (Beatrice Alteriba) as a sting. This time, with the victim strapped to the operating table, and Genessier called away to bluff the gendarmes, first Christiane takes pity and uses the scalpel to cut the girl free, and when Louise tries to intervene, stabs her in the throat - the fatal blade targeting her surgery scar-tissue.

In a weirdly affecting climax she un-cages the dogs - that savage and kill Genessier, and then she releases the doves. Moving like a white ghost in ribboned dressing gown, Christiane finally emerges into the forbidden night, heavy with symbolism, masked to anonymity and walking with a white dove on her hand.

It's easy to imagine curled-lip ex-Generation X rocker Billy Idol watching this noir movie on an old VHS print, but Les Yeux Sans Visage is now newly available, in this pristine digital edition with generous bonus features, ready to imprint itself onto a new generation of cult credibility.

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