Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

Les yeux sans visage
Director: George Franju
France/Italy 1960
88 min
Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel, Edith Scob, Francois Guérin and Alexandre Rignault, among others.

See it on YouTube: link

This is the kind of a film that manages to intrigue you right from the start. If you haven't scene it, watch the first scene that I cut out from the film. There is no dialog, but instead a haunting musical score my Maurice Jarre that sounds like Hitchcock goes Jacques Brel. Who is the anonymous person in the backseat? Where is the driver going in the middle of the night? The film does not hurry to give you the explanations, but you will get them soon enough.

We cut to a scene where a talented professor speaks at a conference. The subject is the practice of transplantation of living tissue and organs and the complications that hasn't been conquered yet. The first two scenes are quickly linked to each other when the professor, Dr. Génessier (Brasseur), is called to the morgue to identify a young girl's body. While walking in the corridor with the employees he is informed that the girl's face has been removed - only her eyes are still intact. After having seen the body he admits that the girl without a doubt is his missing daughter. A funeral follows, where we meet the fiancé of the girl, Jacques (Guérin) and Génessier's assistant... the woman who dumped the body!
When I had reached this scene I was so intrigued I found it hard to sit still.

It is still early in the film when we get to know that the body of the young girl did not belong to Dr. Genéssier's daughter Christiane (Scob), and he was well aware of it when he identified the body. In reality his daughter lives with him in his mansion, being locked out from the outside world. Depressed after her face has been disfigured after a car accident and being forced to wear a rubber mask to hide her hideous looks, Génessier and his assistant Louise (Valli) try to find young, pretty girls that they can steal the faces from to transplant it to Christiane. The problem is that the transplants does not always work successfully, and it is also obvious that Christiane is dubious about how she feels about her father's kidnappings and experiments, something that brings a lot of sadness and anguish into the film.

Eyes Without a Face is an unconventional and beautiful film. It caused a lot of controversy when it was released. Some people thought the surgery scene was gruesome (and I can't argue about that, but it's still awesome), and many critics thought that director George Franju had made a movie that wasn't "worthy of his abilities". This was at the time when this genre hadn't received critical acceptance yet, which was something Franju thought about while making the film. He said himself that this film was an attempt to get minor genres to be taken seriously.

One thing that amazed me with this movie was the use of atmospheric music. In some scenes there is absolute silence, in some scenes the Maurice Jarre tunes take over the whole sound track and dominate the scene. The variation is very effective and keeps you on edge.
The black and white cinematography is lovely, and the last frame in the film before the text "fin" ("the end") pops up might be the most beautiful ending I have ever seen.

Oh, and do you like Christiane's ghost like gowns? They were created by Hubert de Givenchy, who made Audrey Hepburn's wardrobe for Sabrina (1954), Charade (1963) and How to Steal a Million (1966)!

Am I the only one who thinks this concept of a face being disfigured after a car crash and the victim wearing a freaky rubber mask sounds familiar? I think about Abre Los Ojos (1997), remade in 2001 as Vanilla Sky. I don't think it can be a mere coincidence, even though I can't find any information about a connection. Other films that come to mind when seeing that rubber mask is Mr. Sardonicus (1961) and of course the numerous adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera. I can't find any connections between them neither...

...what I did find was a quote from director John Carpenter who said that Christiane's mask in Eyes Without a Face was his main inspiration for Michael Myer's mask in Halloween (1978)!


Mykal said...

Lolita: Great post. I love the way you mention similar films of the same ilk, like one of my favorite Castle films, Mr. Sardonicus.

Also, I thought the music really was an important aspect to this film, as you point out. It really added to the atmosphere without being bombastic.

Doesn't this film sort of haunt your memories? That smooth, blank face onto which we can imagine so much.

Grat Post! -- Mykal

Lolita said...

Thanks! I have no idea what went wrong with the layout though - those big empty spaces aren't there in the post draft :S

It's true, you can't forget this film! I haven't yet seen Mr. Sardonicus actually (nor Halloween), but it looks fascinating!

Christopher said...

"(whisper)abre los ojos.."one of my fave films for more recent years.
I haven't seen Eys without a face in ages..not since regular television when it'd turn up when local horror host shows would run a rash of euro horror..
Watched Mr. Sardonicus again a few weeks ago..its....ok...