Sunday, September 13, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 11: Death By Scarring

So France was making a foray into genre films and success was proving elusive. Diabolique had placed them on the map in the mid to late 50s (depending on when it arrived in your country) and so distributors went looking for the next big thing. That they relied on several old big things kinda shows you that the French weren't really the people to go for exploitation cinema. They were much more concerned with artistic merit, which for once in the history of the arts, failed them. Thankfully, someone had the bright idea to ask a no-name director already associated with that burgeoning, cultural slap-in-the-face the Nouvelle Vague or New Wave. Wunderkind critics-turned-directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were tearing up cinematic conventions and leaving a trail of defiled genres in their wake. One of the many minor names who got slapped onto the movement in an effort to over-think things (which is a rule with magazines and movements. If you even resemble the members of a movement, you had best believe that some terrified journalist is going to rope you in for fear that they're behind the curve) was a really smart short film director called Georges Franju. Franju's feature debut Head Against The Wall was by all accounts one of the most accurate, bold and haunting takes on mental illness to date (because getting ahold of a minor French New Wave movie is about as easy as hearing 'please' in Boston, I have yet to see it - Ed. I have since seen it, and it's more a study in cultural/social isolation than illness. It fits in rather perfectly with the early crop of New Wave fare in its depiction of someone who simply cannot find his footing in French society). So Champs-Élysées Productions, which was still in relative infancy in 1960, did the reasonable thing and asked Franju, a new filmmaking name, to make them a horror film that might simultaneously appeal to critics and, crucially, younger audiences. They then partnered with veteran production house Lux Films in order to gain access to its roster of respected character actors to make what would become the second biggest French horror film of all time.

Eyes Without A Face
by Georges Franju

The first thing we see is a shifty looking Alida Valli, who'd once owned the international art film scene by appearing in The Third Man and who was headed to a pretty bad end in the hands of Italian filmmakers (look for her in relative prestige films Suspiria and 1900 and unequivocally embarrassing films Killer Nun and Lisa And The Devil). Anyway, Valli's character's name we'll later learn is Louise, but for now she's a nervous, guilty-looking woman driving a car at high speeds with someone in the backseat whose face is covered by a fishing hat. She then parks in a secluded spot and dumps the body into a reservoir. Upon arriving home, which is a stately manor near a private clinic, she's greeted by Docteur Génessier (veteran sideman Pierre Brasseur, who'd been rounding out marquees since the 30s, here effortlessly commanding his screentime with his mad scientist beard and steely gaze which would be copied almost as many times as the plot for this film). Génessier gives her some vague but understanding dialogue and they go into the mansion. On the second floor is the doctor's daughter Christiane who curiously refuses to show her face while both Louise and Génessier comfort her. Without being too specific, they intimate in their talk that some accident has taken place and that they've faked Christiane's death. Christiane is understandably bummed, first because she has no way of telling her boyfriend that she's still alive; second because the accident left her faced scarred to the point of monstrousness. The only thing left intact were her eyes, which are visible behind the face mask she's been forced to wear in the aftermath of the accident.

So why the business with the body dumping? Why haven't they sought medical help for the girl? Well what we learn a little later is that Génessier is both a respected surgeon and a bit of an egomaniacal cad. Christiane explains that he has to control everyone....even on the road. Yes, it was Génessier who crashed the car that claimed Christiane's face and he was so guilt-ridden that he promised to fix his daughter's face if it was the last thing he did. The only problem is that when you're trying to perform secret facial grafting operations (facial transplant is actually a closer approximation to what goes on) you can't very well go around asking for donors. Who would give up their face to edify a guilty mad scientist and his disfigured daughter? Well, Louise and the doctor have found a way around that. Louise goes into Paris and makes the acquaintance of pretty girl loners with facial dimensions roughly equivalent to Christiane and then promises them that she has something worth showing them back at the mansion; in the case of her next victim, it's a cheap apartment. Once they're back at the manse, it's drugging and then involuntary surgery; hence the faceless girl from the car. Why is Louise helping the doctor with his evil plan? Well she too was once in need of some major under-the-table surgery and he helped her get a new face; the only evidence is some scarring which she hides beneath a pearl choker. Their next operation is a qualified success: The girl whom they lure back to the mansion escapes and throws herself from a second story window after they steal her face and the facial tissue they borrow only lasts Christiane about a month before it decays and needs to be removed.
A number of things seem poised to undo the doctor. First is that you obviously can't keep abducting the young girls of Paris without someone noticing. Two detectives (one played by Pierre Brasseur's son Claude, who's appearance in Godard's Bande à Part would solidify his importance in the New Wave) are already on the case and the only thing they manage to get out of the last victim's friends is that she had befriended an older woman with a pearl necklace. Christiane's boyfriend Jacques comes around to the detective to ask about any developments with his presumed dead girlfriend. He doesn't hear anything positive but the mention of a woman with a pearl choker abducting girls catches his ears. Jacques met Christiane through her father because he works at Génessier's clinic, you see. So that means he's pretty familiar with the regulars, including nurse Louise. The police find this information pretty useful and decide a sting is in order. Finally, Christiane herself is in no way happy about this turn of events. She's pretty pissed off about her dad's reckless behavior and even less happy about the fact that he's been sacrificing women on her behalf. If the police don't apprehend him soon, one gets the feeling that Christiane might just take matters into her own hands.

Eyes Without A Face made a pretty tremendous impact on the world. It inspired rip offs and remakes in countries all over the world, the most notorious being The Brain That Wouldn't Die, a minor grindhouse hit that Mike and the bots gave a good working over on one of their many televised years stranded in space on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. It was so popular it was enough to retroactively change the name of an old Louis Feuillade film to match it's title when it was revived for scattered screenings and museum stays; Feuillade made silent French serials in the teens and twenties, the most well-known of them Les Vampires and Fantomas are cult items among cinephiles. This is especially funny considering how much Franju loved and stole from Feuillade. It hit Mexico under the name The Torture Chamber of Dr. Faustus and inspired René Cardona to make countless awful mad-doctor films. Israel and Palestine threw down their weapons and embraced each other like brothers....wait, scratch that last. Everyone loved Eyes Without A Face. They loved it so much they were willing to overlook how smart it was and use it to power their nasty little film industries. Indeed everything seems hard-boiled and grimy about it (down to the chilling title) except the movie itself. Eyes Without A Face is an almost unrealistically elegant horror film, lightyears ahead of its peers and disciples where composition and mood are concerned. The characters look like classical sculptures, especially Christiane in her porcelain mask. For all the sweaty madness it would engender in the coming years, the only remotely dirty things about it are the surgery scenes and a few seconds of the climax. Other than that the film is bloodless and relies solely on dialogue, implication and a lot of very harrowed expressions for its shocks and spooks. Also noticeably absent are the jump-cuts and genre send-ups that were by then staples of the French New Wave. You could have dared some filmmakers to film a scene as grizzly as a face transplant in the early 60s and they wouldn't have touched it, let alone with Franju's clinical detachment. It recalls Charles Laughton's handling of his patient's screaming face in Island of Lost Souls. Which meant not only was Franju peerless in the horror genre, he was no longer in danger of being roped in with the other pioneers of the new wave. His take on the horror film was so spotless and beautiful that any lingering associations between him and any other school of filmmaker disappeared. You could easily get the impression from watching Eyes Without A Face that it's director had been at it a lot longer than he was.

Don't get me wrong, as an atmospheric horror film, it's one of the best. There's a misty sort of malaise hanging over the heads of every character and a sense of loss and fatigue plagues even the film's most minor characters. Pierre Brassuer and Alida Valli have pretty challenging roles to play, but they were pros so not only do they pull off a sense guilt attacking their sense of duty, they do it often without saying a word. This is a rarity and a contradiction: a mad science film without any histrionics and some relatively tame science. What's great about it is that the operation doesn't seem like too much of a stretch and the time frame they give isn't all that unreasonable either. The characters drudge from crime to crime waiting to see if anything changes, because absolutely everyone counts on Génessier to make some kind of move, whether they know it or not. So there are long stretches of the simple agony of getting through a day. When you've experienced loss, solitude is the hardest thing of all and we see plenty of that. Edith Scob pulls off a very touching performance from behind a face mask. She is one of Franju's many great compositional victories. Her white face mask is both really eerie and cool and it also reminds us why we don't want to be perfect. As much as we strive for the perfect body or better skin or whatever other cosmetic gain people are after, perfection is actually kind of creepy and getting there is no picnic. Christiane seems like she'd be ok being deformed if it meant seeing Jacques again, but it's her father who imprisons her until she looks perfect again. Sound like any parents you know? So as much as Franju made a modernist Frankenstein tale which hits much closer to home than either Mary Shelley's book or James Whale's movie, he also perfectly outlines what's wrong with most parents. An accepted theory behind parenthood is that your child is a representation of your finest points; if your kid leaves home with torn jeans and a tattoo that is directly proportionate to how responsible you are as parent in the eyes of society (or at least in the minds of parents who take the words of their fuckhead friends and neighbors as the gospel truth). So, your kid wants to leave home with her face scorched off, how's that going to reflect on you? The surgery is as much about Génessier's pride and arrogance as it is about curing anyone of anything. Which is even more frightening because it means Christiane may never actually be able to tell her dad what she thinks because on top of being imposing and having science on his side, he's also her dad and standing up to an authority figure like that is not easy for children to do.
With all this subtext and really impressive direction hanging around it's not the least bit surprising that people completely ignored its finer points in favor of its theoretical horror, at least until it's critical resurrection in the last twenty or so years. Those looking to rip it off kept the vanity of the doctor and the guilt of the patient but forgot why they were there in the first place. In fact the one thing they sought to replicate was what I found myself least impressed with. The scenes with the surgery are well executed and the premise is psychologically terrifying to be sure, but after one viewing I just don't find it that scary anymore. So when you take out all of that, you know, intelligent motivation shit and get to the mad science, you're selling sleazy self-importance, which is certainly fun but it isn't the least bit compelling. That's part of the reason that The Doctor's Horrible Experiment doesn't work; that film's mad scientist Dr. Cordelier is an asshole because of the fact of science. We don't know what he was after with his experiments and Jean Renoir refused to raise the stakes so it's just arrogance amplified by science to the point where he goes around kicking people in the streets because he's so fucking impressive. Franju piled on the gravity to the point that the slightest nod or gesture is really devastating and everyone is capable of pulling it off. If Franju had been slightly more concerned with making sure he was scaring people, this would be a masterpiece. It's pretty fucking close though.

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