EYES WITHOUT A FACE

EYES WITHOUT A FACE

(A.k.a. LES YEUX SANS VISAGE; HOUSE OF DOCTOR RASANOFF; OCCHI SENZA VOLT0; THE HORROR CHAMBER OF DOCTOR FAUSTUS)

Louise (Alida Valli) drives along a country lane at night, a figure cloaked in a rain Mac and hat drooped across her back seat. She pulls up at the mouth of a dam and, when the coast is clear, drags the body from the back of the car and throws it into the water.

The following morning Professor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) delivers a dinner party speech on advanced surgery procedures. His remarks are met with rapturous applause, but his adulation is disrupted by a telephone call from the morgue.

Genessier dashes there, where's he's told a body has been retrieved from the local dam. The description - a young female brunette with a disfigured face - matches that of Genessier's daughter Christiane, who he has reported as missing. Genessier makes his way to the identification room and confirms that the corpse is indeed his daughter's.

As Genessier leaves the police station with his head hanging low, the father of another missing girl loiters - he had been on standby to identify the corpse, as it also matched the description of his daughter. The police, even at this early stage, suspect that something is not quite right with this set-up.

To this end, the cops attend Christiane's funeral, where they observe Genessier from a distance and clue us in a little more on the man. We learn that he, the son of a famous academic, is an acclaimed surgeon in his own right and a widow. We also learn that the stern Louise is his secretary.

After the funeral, Genessier returns to his huge secluded home, tends to the howling dogs that protect the property and then makes his way upstairs to see Christiane (Edith Scob).

He finds her laid on her bed sobbing, clutching her own fake death certificate. Genessier explains that he has had to make the cops think she is dead: it will help him proceed with his work more easily. He reminds Christiane that all of this ill-doing is for her sake: he hopes to rebuild her visage (she is hideously disfigured, following a car crash that left her unconscious in the river while rats ate her face).

As he leaves, Louise enters the room and helps Christiane apply a white mask to her face. Louise comforts the girl, reminding her how Genessier successfully rebuilt her own face and encourages her to have faith. But Christiane remains understandably bitter - the crash was her father's fault, and since then he has banned her from going near mirrors or shiny surfaces in a bid to protect her from witnessing her own savaged features.

The next day Louise ventures into town and befriends pretty Edna (Juliette Mayniel) outside a cinema. The two meet later for lunch and, when Louise discovers Edna is looking for a room, she says she has a friend who can offer accommodation.

Louise drives Edna to Genessier's place. Despite being at unease with imposing chateau, Edna is coaxed inside its doors. Within seconds the surgeon has smothered her face with a chloroform-soaked handkerchief. Genessier and Louise carry her unconscious body down to his cellar laboratory while Christiane watches unseen in the background.

41 minutes into the film and its most notorious scene ensues: the graphic operation entailing the gory removal of Edna's face. But will it result in a happy end for Christiane? Or will the police circle in more closely as Genessier continues his futile plight?

Onward EYES progresses, past its extremely matter-of-fact standout gore scene and into more sublime, poetic territory - building towards a climax that is at once deeply haunting and achingly beautiful.

The build-up to this point is at times slow, but always mesmerising. Director Georges Franju takes a schlocky B-movie script and treats it in an almost documentary fashion, aiming for a sense of realism in even the most fantastic circumstances. The result is at times unnerving, and most definitely chilling.

From the opening credits sequence with the trees whizzing by as we view them from Louise's car window, to the infamous releasing of the dogs, revisiting EYES is a pleasure. The sense of nostalgia doesn't dilute either, as the film settles into a familiar leisurely pace and carefully nuanced performances. Because, quite simply, it's full of beautiful and inspired visuals that work alongside the subtle delivery of the script: Christiane weeping silently behind her emotionless mask when hearing a human voice on the other end of a telephone line, is one of many quiet moments that perfectly paint a picture of melancholic art at its most penetrating.

Filmed in 1959, EYES feels very contemporary in its themes (cosmetic surgery) and it's treatment (the cold clinical gore scene; the poetic visual flourishes elsewhere). Performances are restrained and retain a cruel iciness to them like only the French seem capable of mustering. In all, the film has aged exceptionally well.

It's also nigh on impossible while viewing it not to think of all the films it's undoubtedly influenced - several works by Jesus Franco and David Cronenberg spring immediately to mind.

It's a classic film, and one that every horror film fan owes it to themselves to view at least once.

BFI's dual format DVD and blu-ray release has been quite some time in coming. Part of this was clearly clearing the rights for Franju's controversial short film "Blood of the Beasts" (set in the French slaughterhouses) for inclusion. It was advertised as a feature from the start, but is not actually present. Also, what was initially announced as being a 3-disc package (one blu-ray; two DVDs) is a now a double-disc affair.

But, don't panic. It's still easy to say BFI's release has been worth the (lengthy) wait.

We were sent a copy of the DVD to review. A dual-layer DVD9 disc, it contains the same material as the blu-ray - albeit, naturally, in standard definition.

The film is presented uncut in an anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer. The restoration of the print is impressive: very clean, resulting in brighter and sharper visuals than previous releases. Blacks are deep, contrast is supremely controlled - the shadows and perfectly considered compositions have never been better served.

The French mono audio track used is free from hiss and without obvious problems. The iconic score comes across well, while dialogue sounds much fuller than it did on Second Run's comparatively flat UK DVD release.

Easily readable and expertly proofread optional English subtitles are at hand.

An attractive animated main menu gives access to a static 12-chapter scene selection menu.

Bonus features begin with an authentically affectionate, typically fact-filled audio commentary track from the ever-reliable Tim Lucas. If you've heard any of his tracks before (and if you're a fan of Bava, for example, you really SHOULD have), you'll know that his work is engaging, informed and fluent. And it's no different here.

Despite "Blood of the Beasts" being disappointingly absent, we do get two other shorts from Franju: 1953's "Monsieur et Madame Curie" and 1958's "La Premiere Nuit". Both are presented in their original pillar-boxed ratios,

The former is a 14-minute tribute to the lives of the pioneering scientists, with the help of Marie Curie for narration. The latter is more interesting, a semi-autobiographical 20-minute feature concerning a 10-year-old boy (Pierre Devis) who flees to the Paris Metro overnight in search of a girl he'd glimpsed in passing. Atmospheric and curious, it's a memorable piece despite its inconsequential plot.

"Les Fleurs Maladives de Georges Franju" is Pierre-Henri Gibert's excellent 2009 appraisal of the filmmaker's career. A generous 50 minutes in length, this takes in an interesting array of onscreen interviewees - Kate Ince, Claude Chabrol, Edith Scob, Jacques Champreux, Bernard Queysanne, Robert Hossein, Freddy Buache and Jean-Pierre Mocky - in a bid to understand more about the late, great director's works. Interspersed with clips from key films and references to insightful text on the filmmaker, this is a hugely valid addition to this disc.

"For Her Eyes Only" is a new 17-minute chat with actress Scob. A regal sensibility becomes the veteran actress as she lucidly recalls working with Franju and the friendship she enjoyed with him afterwards.

Although unavailable for review purposes, the blu-ray contains all of the above. Everything is presented in HD, I believe.

A 36-page booklet rounds off this fine set of extras. It's peppered with handsome monochrome photographs, while being stuffed to the gills with great accompanying essays by Michael Brooke, Kate Ince, Isabel Stevens, Kevin Jackson, Raymond Durgnat and Roberto Cuerto Llera. As well as offering a wealth of further contextual criticism, this also comes with the usual notes on the transfer and disc credits/acknowledgements.

EYES WITHOUT A FACE gets by far its best UK release date so far, thanks to the sterling efforts of BFI and co. Yes, this set has definitely been worth the wait.

Review by Stuart Willis


 
Released by Bfi
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
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