Thursday, 20 August 2015

Eyes Without A Face aka Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960)

The very first film I wrote about for House of Mortal Cinema gets a sparkling dual disc Blu-ray and DVD release courtesy of the BFI, in a finely restored print that looks an awful lot better than the version that toured UK cinemas back in 2011 when the site started. It's influenced everyone from Jess Franco to Pedro Almodovar, with Robert Hartford-Davis' CORRUPTION in there somewhere as well. None of its imitators, however, can compare to the original. 

Plastic surgeon Dr Genessier (Pierre Brassuer) has, through his careless driving, caused extensive damage to the face of his daughter Christianne (Edith Scob). Being the kind of surgeon usually encountered in pulp horror fiction of the period, Genessier hasn’t heard of trying to take skin grafts from elsewhere on Christianne’s body to try and improve her appearance, even though he gives a lecture on the subject at the start of the film. But why should he when he lives so near Paris and there’s a bevy of beautiful women whom he can kidnap and graphically remove the faces of in increasingly desperate acts of transplantation?

With its pulpy source material it’s not surprising that George Franju’s film kick-started a subgenre of horror cinema that concentrated on the lurid rather than the lyrical aspects of his movie. As I mentioned back in my post four years ago, I would always argue that Franju’s film is a horror picture more than anything else, but it’s fair to say it has its moments of high art. The tale of the surgeon responsible for destroying his own daughter’s face and willing to do anything to repair his actions is the stuff of pulp paperback luridness, and Franju certainly elevates it way above its penny dreadful potential, making as fine a horror film as one could hope for with the material. 

Apart from the nasty bits there’s a pervasive gloom to the film that serves to augment the desperate situation of its central character, wandering her father’s isolated country mansion, a literally faceless wraith assumed dead by the rest of the world. One imagines the city-set scenes at the police station and its environs would be grey even if the picture were in colour, and it never seems to stop raining. Almost from the beginning there is no suggestion that the film is going to end anything other than badly, which is possibly why the final scene is all the more moving, simultaneously suggesting hope and hopelessness, freedom and utter loneliness.  

EYES WITHOUT A FACE was made in 1959 but it’s best viewed out of context with contemporary horror cinema of the time, when Hammer was well on its way to becoming the most successful producer of horror films in the world, Hitchcock was about to make PSYCHO, and British company Anglo Amalgamated had just released Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM. Compared with these slicker movies the Franju film seems a bit creaky. The horror is no less effective, but nevertheless the movie feels as if it belongs to a different age, making the surgical scenes and the deaths at the climax possibly even more shocking and unexpected. 

As I’ve mentioned above, the BFI’s transfer looks excellent, and really gives this film a new lease of life. Extras include a commentary track by Tim Lucas, a fifty minute Franju career overview (LES FLEURS MALADIVES), an interview with Edith Scob, and two short films: MONSIEUR ET MADAME CURIE is fourteen minutes long and tells of the work of the scientists from the point of view of Marie Curie; and LE PREMIER NUIT, which comes with a Georges Delerue score and tells the twenty minute tale of a young boy spending a night on the Metro. There’s also the usual excellent BFI booklet with essays about the disc’s contents, including one on Maurice Jarre’s score. 

George Franju's LES YEUX SANS VISAGE is being released by the BFI on dual disc Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray on 
24th August 2015

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