Big Screen Berkeley: Eyes Without a Face

Remember Billy Idol? The punk rocker turned ‘80s rock star projected an image of bad boy stupidity, but it seems there was more going on beneath the studded leather jackets and spiky blonde pompadour. An English Literature student at university, Idol apparently also spent time at the local art house, soaking up the inspiration of an obscure French film entitled Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face). The rest is Top Ten history.

Co-founder with Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française in 1937, archivist Georges Franju began making documentary short subjects in the late 1940s, but moved into more fantastic realms a decade later. Eyes Without a Face (screening at Pacific Film Archive on Friday, Dec. 7 at 8:50 p.m. as part of the ongoing series “Grand Illusions: French Cinema Classics, 1928–1960″) was his second feature-length film and the one for which he’s best remembered.

Accompanied by a jangling, unsettling Maurice Jarre cue, the film begins on the road, as an agitated driver (Alida Valli) speeds through heavy weather in a classic Citroen 2CV. A passenger in the back seat, face obscured by winter hat and coat, is revealed to be the corpse of a young woman whom her chauffeur inelegantly deposits into the Seine. Clearly all is not well in the Parisian suburbs.

Back in the city, brilliant doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is delivering an address on physical rejuvenation and tissue and organ transplants. Upon completion of his speech, Génessier is summoned to the local morgue, where he identifies the body — recently recovered from the river — as that of his daughter, Christiane.

End of story? Not quite. Despite appearances, the body is not that of Christiane, but of another missing girl. Christiane still lives — albeit horribly disfigured thanks to her father’s poor driving. Secreted in the expansive Génessier villa, the badly scarred young woman (22-year old Edith Scob, still working in film today) awaits the face transplant her father has promised her as recompense for his carelessness.

Adorned with a featureless white mask and an ethereal white nightie, Christiane glides restlessly through the halls of the villa while her father experiments fruitlessly on animals and humans alike in an effort to restore his child to her original condition. Meanwhile, Valli’s character — a former Génessier patient herself — trolls the streets of Paris for scientific subjects, fittingly finding one during a performance of Ionescu’s Victimes du Devoir (Victims of Duty).

A simple story elegantly told, Eyes Without a Face was nonetheless quite controversial when originally released, primarily due to an extended and quite explicit surgical sequence. Though produced in 1959, the film wouldn’t open in the United States until 1962, when — dubbed, edited, and retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus — it hit American drive-ins on a double-bill with The Manster, a lowbrow (but thoroughly entertaining) shot-in-Japan chiller. Since then the film’s reputation (and excised footage) has been restored, and it briefly playing U.S. cinemas in 2003.

Franju considered himself a filmmaker not of the fantastic, but of unusual reality, and Eyes Without a Face would prove prophetic upon the advent of face transplant surgery decades later. This evening’s PFA screening is preceded by Franju’s earlier (and far more gruesome) slaughterhouse documentary, Le sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts). Bring your smelling salts, but please — no Rebel Yells when the lights go up in the auditorium.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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