Thursday, 26 February 2009

Eyes Without a Face

1960
Dir. Georges Franju

Famed surgeon Dr Génessier’s daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) is horrifically disfigured in a car accident caused by his reckless driving. The guilt of his own careless actions, and the despair and pain they have caused his daughter, have drove him to abduct young women, surgically remove their faces and attempt to graft them onto Christiane’s own scarred face. When Christiane realises what her father is doing, she decides that the time has come to show him that he cannot control everything…

This was Franju’s feature film debut. Preceding it was a series of short films and documentaries, notably The Blood of the Beasts, a documentary about an abattoir. While not the first film to follow the exploits of a deranged surgeon, Eyes Without a Face was certainly the first to do so in such a poetic, provocative and literate way. It addresses notions of identity, morality, obsession and hope. Written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, writers whose earlier work such as Celle Qui N’Etart Plus and D’entre les Morts had been adapted for the screen as Les Diaboliques and Vertigo respectively.

The opening scenes, accompanied by a deranged and carnivalesque-organ score courtesy of Maurice Jarre, capture the imagination and our attention almost immediately, as we see the doctor’s assistant Louise (Alida Valli) driving cautiously along a dark road and dumping a female body in a lake. The maniacal fairground music and the dastardly deeds of this striking and alluring woman are instantly engrossing and continue to bewitch as the film weaves it’s darkly spell.




Quite shocking for its time and still rather graphic even by today’s standards, the film contains a number of gruelling clinical operation scenes depicting Génessier performing surgery to remove the faces of several women. We see him mark the contours of the face with a pencil; cut the flesh delicately with a scalpel, insert forceps tenderly around the severed flesh and gently remove the whole face. These scenes are powerful and more than a little uncomfortable to watch and perhaps due to their brief intensity, linger long in the mind afterwards.




The still images that depict the disintegration of Christiane’s new face when her own skin tissue rejects it are sobering and utterly tragic. The futility of the doctor’s attempts adds gravitas to Christiane’s hopeless situation. Scob’s performance as the doomed Christiane is remarkable. As her face is covered by a sinister and featureless mask throughout the film, all we see are her incredibly expressive eyes conveying a whirlwind of emotions.

The use of juxtaposition within the film is startling and really adds depth to the characters and the situations they find themselves in: the renowned doctor who helps and cures his patients - all the while unable to help his own daughter; the obedient and down-trodden servant who befriends young women only to lead them to their deaths; and Christiane: on the outside a monstrous looking creature who must wear a mask, while behind the mask lies a helpless and sad young girl, victim of circumstances she had little or no control over.

The pacing of the film is rather languid, but it still manages to draw you in with its captivating atmosphere of melancholy and longing.
Argento regular and widow of Fritz Lang, Alida Valli, is the doctor’s assistant. A former patient of his, she abducts young women to repay him for his remarkable reconstruction work on her scarred body. The pearl necklace/choker she wears not only hides her own hideous scars, but also serves as a constant reminder of her subservience to him – she is as much his pet as the dogs he keeps locked in the basement. When her death comes it is shocking in its honest brutality and wields a certain pathos given her situation. She, while to a lesser extent, is as much a purgatory dwelling creature as Christiane: they dwell in a shadowy existence, hidden from society, with only their own pasts and scars for company.

The film is not all weighty morbidity, it also exhibits a mortiferous and dark humour that slinks to the surface on occasion, such as when Génessier examines Christiane’s new face and tells her to ‘Smile. Not too much.’

The various scenes with Christiane wandering ghostlike throughout the gigantic house have such an intense visual poetry and haunting quality to them. Such moments recall similar scenes in the work of Jean Cocteau, such as La Belle et la Bête and Orphée and are breathtaking in their ethereal surrealism and moodiness.
Christiane is essentially a ghost: doomed to wander faceless throughout the duration of her sheltered life, unable to help herself or communicate with the outside world. She is a tragic figure and this tragedy is highlighted during the films final moments as she wanders out into the gloomy forest accompanied by fluttering doves, seemingly to continue her lonely and spectral-like wanderings alone… she might be physically free of her overbearing and obsessive father and his ghastly experiments, but she will never be free from the scars she bears: a constant reminder of her father and what he did to her.

A haunting and powerful film that digs as deeply and softly under the skin as the scalpels wielded by the crazed surgeon who lurks in its dark heart.

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