Saturday, May 12, 2007

Film Review--Eyes Without a Face (1960)

Traditionally, it’s pretty difficult for me to be moved by horror films, at least in the traditional way. I recognize and appreciate, above all other genres, the artistic sensibilities that horror brings, but I am very rarely scared or shocked by them anymore. That said, there are a few mundane subjects in real life that can still disturb me in film, no matter how many times I see them. Two of these things are doctors and dolls (china dolls, specifically). Why the dolls? I don’t really know, but facts are facts, they are disturbing. This brings us to Eyes Without a Face, the masterpiece of poetic horror from George Franju.

The scenario, another lurid tale imagined by the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (who combined on the screenplays for Diabolique and Vertigo), is about Professor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), a highly respected and innovative plastic surgeon, who caused an accident that left his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) faceless (how one suffers no ill-effects except the loss of a face is anyone’s guess, but this is not the issue here). Through his guilt turned obsession, Genessier’s only goal is to restore his daughter’s beauty by any means necessary. This means kidnapping pretty young girls and removing their faces off for transplant. Christiane, watching it all go by faceless in an expressionless white mask and a china doll dress, lilts through her father’s mansion like a ghost, hoping that his disgusting operations will one day restore her beauty. She has become jaded to the procedure and the victims have become little more than meat for her to gaze upon.

We are thrust into the middle of the action, with Genessier’s nurse (Alida Valli, in a wonderfully cold performance) dragging a body and throwing it in a river. With no backstory, we are immediately taken off guard as she then goes to town to pick up another victim. Using the ruse of a room for rent, she brings this college student back to the mansion where she is drugged and prepped for surgery. Watching from above, we witness the removal of the face in an extraordinarily slow and cold sequence which starts with penciling the incision lines and finishing with the unplugging of the skin from the muscles to lift the face off the victim. It is a horrifically realistic scene executed with a nonchalance that only makes it darker and more maniacal. It is almost a relief when, after the face comes off, we see a fairly poor, definitely dated, makeup job; I was close to becoming nauseous, a feeling from a movie I have not felt in maybe 15 years. I was so stressed by the situation that it was all I could do that night to fall asleep.

But, more than just a lurid subject that gets to me personally, Eyes Without a Face is one of the most atmospheric and poetic horror movies I’ve ever seen. Every shot is set up to maximize the dread without resorting to scare tactics. There are no capture and escape sequences, this is horror of a father’s obsessive love for his child, love turned perverse through vanity and pride. What he once was, doting father and respected doctor, is long gone, replaced by cold-blooded kidnapping, murder, and psychosis. It is a simple, beautifully told story that is effective on all levels. Eugene Schuftan’s cinematography, in its muted shades of black and white, looks like a fairy tale and reminds me more of the films of Cocteau and Renoir than anything in the horror realm. In fact, the only movie that really approximates the poetry of this film is Dreyer’s Vampyr, although Eyes Without a Face is significantly more exciting than its predecessor. Maurice Jarre’s oddly ironic score, in combination with a full palette of sound effects gives a claustrophobic feeling of dread. Hearing a chorus of howling dogs every time the doors open seems, at first, menacing because of the implication that they guard something, but becomes utterly horrifying when we find out that the poor animals are the surgeon’s trial-and-error process. This makes the ending, which I will not spoil, all the more satisfying, especially the beautifully ambiguous and ultimately effective final shot.

Unfortunately, Eyes Without a Face was utterly disregarded upon its release, both in its native France and worldwide. There were some critics who lauded its artistic merit, but most dismissed it as shock for shock’s sake which, today, seems laughable (even though I’ve just said how much it horrified me, this is a personal thing and, given that we can watch surgery footage on cable television 24 hours a day, I don’t think everybody would have the same reaction as me). In the states, to build up its shocking nature, it was retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, but failed miserably when it could not live up to the expectations of the grindhouse audiences it played for. It rightfully gained a following after it was remastered and reissued a few years ago, and I would hope serve as a model for young horror filmmakers that the discomfort and oppression of horror can be more effective than the thrills that are too easy.

Criterion’s DVD is typically excellent, with one of the clearest picture restorations you will see and perfectly rendered sound. The special features, though sparse, are exceptionally interesting. First is Franju’s 1949 documentary Blood of Beasts on the French meat factories. Every bit as artistic as Eyes Without a Face, and ten times more disturbing, this had much the same impact in its time as Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” The other is a short interview with Franju on some really cheesy French sci-fi show from the ‘70s. Here, he discusses where the power of terror and dread come from and, consequently, what makes horror effective. He says, in paraphrase, that horror’s role is to accentuate the abnormal for the sake of fright. But, what is abnormality? A normal person doing normal things is normal. Also, an abnormal person doing abnormal things is normal. But the combination of the two gets to the heart of horror. Abnormal behavior by normals is bizarre and unsettling. Normal behavior by abnormals is plain surreal, and both are equally effective in carrying the weight of horror. This, such a seemingly simple statement, is the exact reason why movies like The Hills Have Eyes cannot work and Eyes Without a Face ultimately succeeds.