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Sep 6, 2007

Les Yeux Sans Visage (1959)

(Eyes Without A Face)

Directed by Georges Franjou.

A woman is seen driving down a country road at night. In the back seat of her small car is an apparently sleeping figure in an overcoat and hat who slumps at every turn of the car. The driver is nervous. Her name is Louise and she is played by Alida Valli, an Italian actress with wonderfully expressive eyes (a quality both female leads in this film have). She pulls the car up at the bank of the Seine and drags the female body from the car and dumps it into the river. The face of the body is not seen.

Professor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is first seen giving a lecture on skin transplantation techniques. He’s an expert on the subject and talks about how intense radiation can be used to overcome tissue rejection problems. After the lecture, the police call him in. A body has been found in the river and it may be Génessier’s missing daughter Christiane. At the morgue, he identifies the body as Christiane and as he walks back to his Citroen, he meets a man who also has come to see if the body is his own daughter. Génessier is gruffly and abstractedly polite to the man.

At Christiane’s funeral in a fog-shrouded country cemetery, Génessier is accompanied by Louise. Obviously the corpse isn't Christiane. Back at his country manor, he parks his car while the barking of unseen dogs is heard. Upstairs in the house is Christiane, a doll-like waif figure (Edith Scob) wearing a full face mask through which only her expressive eyes can be seen.

Her father is kidnapping girls and transplanting their faces onto Christiane, whose own face was hideously burned in a car accident caused by Génessier, who was driving. A combination of guilt, pride and obsession have turned him into the maddest of mad scientists.

Louise now heads out to befriend an attractive student whom she offers accommodation at Génessier’s mansion. The professor chloroforms the girl and in scenes that are still shocking today, straps her to an operating table, peels the face from her and transplants it to Christiane. The graft seems successful at first, raising Christiane’s hopes of a normal life. But over dinner one night, the professor notices an unusual flush to her cheeks. In a series of clinical photographs shown with Génessier’s voice-over, the necrotisation of Christiane's face is documented. This device works shockingly well in a way that would be difficult to emulate with more modern special effects. It’s a good demonstration that less can be more.

Les Yeux Sans Visage is a unique film. In spite of the gory, ugly aspects of it, it is also a film of odd tenderness and unexpected beauty, particularly in the final scene. Christiane is a striking and memorable character. Her fragility is emphasized by the brittle mask she wears, but the main engine of it is the superb acting of Edith Scob. She doesn’t seem walk, but to float as if not entirely a part of the World, which she is not because of her imprisonment by her father. The poignancy of her situation is enhanced by the fact that she phones her former fiance, who thinks she is dead, just to hear his voice, then silently hangs up when he answers.

Franjou’s film is a combination of horror, perceptive characterization, tragedy and visual beauty. It’s one of those movies that is a one-off. Nothing has come close to the mood of this one. Later films, particularly Jess Franco’s The Awful Dr Orloff (Gritos En La Noche), owe a lot to it, but this is definitely one to see for its’ gothic, agonizing atmosphere and the impressive way that Edith Scob conveys the pain, loneliness and isolation of Christiane predominately through body language.
Umbrella Entertainment have released this one in Australia which includes some extras, including an interview with Franjou.

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