Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Eyes Without A Face (Not the Billy Idol Song)

Got a chance to watch this, last night-- part of a slate of TCM classic films picked by, of all people, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Apparently one of his favorite films was this one, a French horror film (Les yeux sans visage) from 1960.

Le plot: Docteur Génessier, a brilliant surgeon, has a daughter who had her face blown off in a car accident that was his fault. Not just some facial scarring: we assume she does not have any face at all because she is forced to wear a creepy-looking mask. His assistant Louise kidnaps fair, blue-eyed girls from Paris (out of gratitude: some time in the past he fixed her face), takes them to his country estate where he chloroforms them, cuts their face off (they show this happening with unsettling detail) and grafts it onto his daughter. The grafts generally don't take, requiring more trips to Paris for Louise.

This goes on until the Gendarmes realize a lot of fair, blue-eyed Parisian girls have gone missing, and they convince Paulette, a petty shoplifter they have in custody, to be kidnapping bait in lieu of jail (I assume this sort of plea-deal is legal in France).

The end comes not by the Gendarmes catching Le Docteur Fou, but as things just go awry, Coen Brothers style: The cops delay the Docteur, the chloroform wears off, Paulette escapes, Louise tries to stop her-- and the faceless daughter stabs Louise to death. She then releases a lot of dogs from cages (he had 'em for grafting practice), they get out and chew Docteur Génessier's face off (the irony buzzer goes off) and the faceless daughter, a dove on her shoulder, wanders off into the woods. Fin, over the blare of the Irony Klaxon.

All this definitely qualifies Eyes Without a Face as a horror film. It was influenced by early Hammer films, which were very popular in France in the 1950s. Les yeux sans visage was eventually released in the United States-- after being dubbed, edited and retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. It came out on a double-bill with The Manster-- Another flawed classic.

A few thoughts:

EWAF was directed by Georges Franjou, the co-founder of the Cinematheque Française, the world's first cinema archive. The influence of the films he archived--in particular German Expressionism-- is quite evident in some nice little bits of poetic film language added to the horror-film base, a cinematic roux. My favorite: Docteur Génessier is opening up a crypt in a cemetery to dispose of another dead girl's body. Louise stands guard. She hears a roaring sound. Thinking a car is coming, she looks around and sees nothing. But she looks up-- and sees a jet flying high overhead in the night sky. The shot lingers: the wingtip lights blink as it slowly crosses the frame. Then another shot of Louise-- just watching the plane. An ambiguous, introspective, beautiful moment plunked right in the heart of all the horror.

This is the best look we get of La Fille Sans Visage
in all her purposely out-of-focus glory.
The power of imagination-- or was 1960 effects makeup
technology not up to the task?
• This film could really, really stand a decent remake. it's got Remake Formula all over it: An intriguing idea, not applied fully and effectively. EWAF is the Frankenstein story, with a mad doctor using living people instead of corpses: this little change makes his violations personal (gimme your face, lady!) rather than theological (take that, God!). It has influenced quite a few other films-- Dr. Sardonicus (1962), Face/Off (1997) and countless lesser drive-in flicks. Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In (2011) is close to a logical sequel-- after you add the his trademark insane family drama to the mix. And if you take EWAF, subtract the mad doctor's personal justification and bury the needle in terms of sheer nihilism, you get The Human Centipede.

• It's another film with a soundtrack that has not aged well. It was the second score by Maurice Jarre, who would go on to win an Oscar with his score for Lawrence of Arabia two years later, pretty much the only member of the EWAF cast or crew who would make a successful migration to Hollywood. For all the orchestral sweep of his scores (Dr. Zhivago, Witness, Ghost) with EWAF his musical contribution is stubbornly Gallic. Jarre created themes to his score: when the mad doctor's assistant would go out looking for fair mademoiselles to carve up, the soundtrack would blare something that sounded like a bistro quintet with a triple-time "umm-PA-PA" meter. It's almost exactly like the theme song of "The Larry David Show." Distracting.

• Courtesy of the IMDb and Hulu, you can actually watch the entire thing free!

1 comment:

  1. I saw the film over twenty years ago, I was about seventeen then, the film was in French and I didn't understand a word, but nevertheless was influenced much. I've seen both Face Off and The Skin I Live In later on but neither of them influenced me so much as Eyes Without A Face. A brilliant production together with perfect live action make the film a wonderful masterpiece of the world movie.