Saturday, March 31, 2012

#129: Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)

Achingly beautiful films about face removal that inspire Billy Idol's hits don't happen every day, but it did happen once, in France in 1960. Georges Franju, lyrical and poetic director of slaughterhouse documentary Blood of the Beasts, was a master at capturing atypical, little-seen parts of Paris and creating beauty out of grisly subject matter. Eyes Without a Face is one of the most graceful and visually sumptuous horror films. It's a film that takes its time and gives the viewer space to really look. It doesn't turn its gaze away from the beauty or the horror, and its expressive use of light and movement is all too rare.

Eyes Without a Face opens with a nervous yet frightening Alida Valli driving down dark, suburban Paris streets at night. A slumped figure in a fedora and overcoat sits in the backseat. Valli pulls over near a river and drags the figure to the water's edge. The viewer now realizes the figure is the dead body of a young woman. Valli tosses her into the water and watches her sink with a curious, unsettling expression on her face. We soon learn that Valli is the assistant of Pierre Brasseur, a celebrated surgeon with an interest in skin graft experimentation. When the body is fished out of the river, Brasseur identifies it as that of his own missing daughter, Edith Scob. In actuality, his daughter is neither missing nor dead, but safe and alive at home. Brasseur is consumed with guilt after his reckless driving caused an accident that disfigured her, and he and Valli have conspired to kidnap young women with similar features. Brasseur then removes the kidnapped woman's face and grafts it onto his own daughter's. The experimental surgeries aren't perfect, and Scob's body eventually rejects the grafted skin. Brasseur is getting closer to success, but that requires more kidnapping and face removal. Meanwhile, Scob wears an expressionless white mask and waits.

I first saw this film 12 years ago on a less-than-pristine VHS version and admired it without loving it. Seeing the Criterion DVD last night, I gained a greater appreciation for the film. The DVD print is mostly excellent, and the expressive black-and-white lighting is given its proper due. This is a gorgeous movie. Franju has a distinct eye, and the images he captures are startling, disturbing, and beautiful. European movie veterans Brasseur and Valli give sharp, understated performances, and Scob is something else. Her piercing eyes and lithe frame and her slow, stylized movements create a very physical, yet ethereal presence. She's like a porcelain doll brought to life or a dancer performing an abstract piece. She could have been a great silent film character. Besides this trio of performers, the film includes two detectives, a large older man and a younger one, who supply some subtly dark comedy that complements the film's tone without detracting from it.

When I first saw this film, I remember feeling sympathy for Scob's character. This time, I realized how complicit she was in the kidnappings, forced surgeries, and murders. (SPOILER) Until she snaps at the end, killing Valli, setting her father's dogs loose upon him, freeing his doves, and walking into the woods alone, she waits at home, fully aware of what her father and his assistant are doing, hoping for the return of her formerly lovely face. (END SPOILER) She's a willing participant, as disturbing and disturbed as the rest of her household. This is a movie that gets creepier with repeat viewings.

Eyes Without a Face is an influential film, one that has been acknowledged as a classic by both horror fans and admirers of golden-era European art cinema. Pedro Almodovar used elements of it in his most recent film, The Skin I Live In. It has a timeless quality but is also a relic of a style of black-and-white, shot-on-film moviemaking that no longer exists. I don't have a lot of spiel this week, just my admiration and recommendation.

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