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, SUSPIRIA) 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 to the morgue, 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 police attend Christiane's funeral, where they observe Genessier from a distance and clue us in a little more on the man. Genessier, 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, parks his car up, tends to his howling dogs 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 wants to rebuild her face (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 her savaged visage.

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. Edna is immediately at unease, unsurprisingly: it's dusk, she's in the middle of nowhere and is confronted by a huge imposing building surrounded by acres of trees. The place is protected by a dozen dogs, howling persistently into the night.

But in Edna goes regardless, where Louise introduces her to Genessier. He offers Edna a port, but within seconds 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 the most notorious scene ensues: the graphic operation entailing the gory removal of Edna's face. But, were the operation successful and were Christiane's looks restored at this point, we wouldn't have much of a film

So 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 it's most penetrating.

Filmed in 1959, EYES feels very contemporary in it's 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.

Second Sight's release finally brings EYES onto UK DVD. It's about time.

The film is presented uncut in an anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer. Images are darker and at times sharper than on the Criterion transfer. Unfortunately though, there is a considerable amount of grain in night scenes. The Criterion transfer offers more detail and is, ultimately, markedly better.

The French mono audio track used is free from hiss and without obvious problems. A back-to-back comparison with the Criterion disc does however make the Second Sight audio sound distinctly flatter when transmitting dialogue. The iconic score comes across well though.

Optional English subtitles are at hand.

An attractive animated main menu (employing that wonderful aforementioned score) gives access to a static 16-chapter scene-selection menu.

The only extra on the disc is an excerpt from the documentary "Cinema of our Time - Georges Franju: Visionary". This runs for 10 minutes and is interesting colour footage of the great man sat watching two scenes from EYES in a projection booth. It was filmed in 1987, the year of Franju's death, aged 75.

He remarks candidly on the two scenes while watching them, essentially making this an early visual variant no what is now known as a director's commentary. It's good stuff while it lasts, with Franju chomping on a cigar throughout. I just wish it had been longer.

It's great to see EYES WITHOUT A FACE finally make it to UK DVD. It's a film that truly deserves to be seen, so kudos to Second Sight for making it happen on these shores.

But I would be lying if I didn't say the Criterion disc is superior in every way.

Review by Stuart Willis


 
Released by Second Sight Films
Region 2 - PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
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