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Seeing Behind the Mask of Horror

Plastic Fantastic: Edith Scob hides her scars behind a featureless fake visage in Georges Franju's "Eyes Without a Face."

Georges Franju's chilling 'Eyes Without a Face' does not confuse horror with a quick fright

By Richard von Busack

WHO TODAY can make horror films with the direct threat of Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage)? The French director's 1959 horror classic, now visible in a newly struck and subtitled 35mm print, is a movie that will make you feel really bad.

Today's horror movie too often confuses horror with quick fright. There are crawly moments in Copycat and Seven, but neither conveys a terrible fate, that sense that it's your turn next. David Lynch is superb at representing the unspeakable fighting desperately to be spoken, bursting out into cryptic symbolism. (Laura Palmer's world is so pristine that she can't accuse her father of rape even when he's on top of her.)

Franju's only real heir, however, is David Cronenberg, with his various essays on physical transformation, especially his creepy mediation on the "tumorous bore" that Jeff Goldblum dreads becoming in The Fly. Like Cronenberg, Franju is animated by Cocteau's precept: "The more you touch on mystery, the more important it is to be realistic." Who needs vampires when you have emergency rooms?

Eyes Without a Face tells the terrible tale of one Professor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), a very self-assured plastic surgeon. Genessier is the picture of medical arrogance, enough of a hard charger to have caused a car crash that leaves his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), with an open wound for a face. After staging her funeral to avert suspicion, he sends his nurse, Louise (Alida Valli), out to kidnap college girls as unwilling donors for face transplants, while the pathetic figure of Christiane wanders the corridors of her father's chateau, wearing an expressionless plastic mask (swiped for Michael Meyers in the Halloween series).

In one of Franju's spine-chilling touches, he has Louise style the marred girl's hair with a few strokes of a comb, a grooming for which Christiane holds still as if she were a doll. The face transplants keep being rejected, and the women keep dying. Eventually--with that easy balancing of the scales we desire from horror films--a rough justice prevails.

Eyes Without a Face is considered one of the earliest gore films, thanks to an extraordinarily vivid sequence of literal face-lifting, but it's made with coolness and refinement, aided by the Givenchy couture (never has a ghoul been so well-dressed), the funeral-waltz score by Maurice Jarre and the cinematography of Eugen Schüfftan, who shot The Hustler. It was co-written by Claude Sautet, the humanist master whose Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud just opened, and the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who also wrote Diabolique and Vertigo. Its subject matter anticipates such later thrillers as The Brain That Wouldn't Die (in which the mad scientist upends the premise and searches for a new body for his decapitated girlfriend), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre , The Silence of the Lambs and a hundred other imitators.

FRANJU (1912­1987) is a director whose often cruel aesthetic is rooted in silent, surreal and German Expressionist cinema. He was, along with his friend Henri Langlois, the founder (in 1937) of the Cinémathèque Française, one of the earliest and most important preservation societies.

His work is full of homages to earlier films. The pleasing trifle Judex (1963; the title is Latin for "Judge"), chronicles a pre­WWI masked supervillain equipped with a hidden cave and an early version of TV. It's made deliberately in the style of Louis Feuillade's early serial, complete with old-fashioned iris shots and title cards. Franju directed a similar story of gentleman criminality in 1974 titled Shadowman.

The director was also intrigued by Feuillade's other masked pulp-fiction criminal, Fantomas, an ancestor of the omniscient James Bond villain Blofeld. The Surrealists were stirred by these phantom enemies of the established order just as the Romantics were by the Devil. You can see why artists loved Fantomas; the master criminal reconciles the comfort of wealth with the freedom and ruthlessness of the artist.

During the Cold War, it was refreshing to see the urbane, kitty-petting Blofeld. Neither the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. supposedly wanted nuclear destruction, neither side seemed to be in control of the arms race, so it was nice to imagine that there was at least one person who not only understood the big picture but who was wielding the paintbrush, too.

Franju should also be remembered for work not available here, described in English critic Raymond Durgnat's out-of-print 1968 book on the director. What Durgnat calls Franju's "slaughter trilogy" is a series of three documentaries: Le Sang des Bêtes (1949; Blood of the Beasts), En Passant par la Lorraine (1950) and Hotel des Invalides (1951). About 30 minutes each, the three films chronicle, in order, a slaughterhouse, a hellish steel factory and an army museum visited by wounded and disfigured war vets.

To Durgnat, Franju said, "If the Hotel des Invalides hadn't been situated in Paris ... I'd have never shot Hotel des Invalides. If the Lorraine steel works weren't surrounded by wheat fields, I'd never have shot En Passant par Lorraine." Franju was influenced by the Surrealist spirit of "collision": the idea that unlikely juxtapositions open the mind.

Indeed, Le Sang des Bêtes begins with everyday cityscapes that are cut jarringly into a killing. The stills for the movie are bad enough, showing such images as a string of dead sheep whose legs are folded over each other's like the legs of Busby Berkeley dancers, and a low-angle shot of a white horse on a bloody floor. "I'm afraid wild horses couldn't drag me into a cinema to see it again," Durgnat writes.

I sympathize. Seeing the butchery of cows at the beginning of In a Year of Thirteen Moons, I walked straight out and haven't been in a Fassbinder movie since. Still, I recall that what really offended me was the brokenhearted transvestite character touring the slaughterhouse and yelping about how much the animals loved being part of the ritual--I was angry at the speciousness of that ex-Christian mentality that animals are aware of their sacrifice and appreciate their sad but essential place in this tragic vale of tears.

From descriptions of how Franju made Le Sang des Bêtes during November in order to film the steam of the scalding pits and the starkness of the electric light, it is apparent that he was not working in that kind of self-indulgent poetic vein.

Franju practiced his craft at a time when it was believed that an artist's sensibility would dissolve unless it were laminated to some sort of moral purpose, but the closest he gets to moralizing is the use of birds as symbols of purity. These doomed birds appear in the finale of Eyes Without a Face, repeatedly in Judex and in his 1957 documentary Notre Dame, Cathedrale de Paris, in which he takes his camera up to the belfry to see pigeons freezing to death or dead already from flying into the bells. As Durgnat observes, Franju doubts that God's eye is on the sparrow.

EVERY HORROR film ought to have its own bloody core, and the essence of Eyes Without a Face is the loathing of the God-like power of doctors. This hatred extends not just to their capacity for causing pain but also to their obscurity, their capacity for hiding behind a glass, darkly. Franju makes us shudder at the sight of Genessier practicing deception on his rounds, brushing off a grieving parent searching for his lost daughter (whom, of course, the mad doctor himself has skinned and murdered) or fibbing to the mother of a doomed boy about her son's condition.

It's not that Genessier is pleased with his misdeeds like a Fantomas would be. The stamp of the Nazi occupation can be seen on most of the popular French art in the decades after WWII. If it's true, as some speculate, that you can find traces of the Occupation in this movie, perhaps it's most visible in Genessier's gravity without regret, an example of the Nazi trait of turning the sorrow of torture inward, so that it was not "Pity you, who has to endure pain" but "Pity me, who must inflict it."

One of Franju's more cold-blooded public comments is that when it comes to observing a victim, there is no difference between tenderness and sadism. Having noted that, it's obviously not an inhuman temperament that made Eyes Without a Face.

I think it is a fairly pure tenderness one feels at the sight of the abused Christiane in her mask, and it is an artist of Hitchcockian serenity who observes this nightmare. Don't expect velocity here. Franju, nearly 50 when he made Eyes Without a Face, was uninterested in newfangled speedy editing--"A nice job for an acrobat, but it doesn't attract me in the least," he told Durgnat. The film's impact depends on its quietness and its gravity.

Pauline Kael once described seeing Eyes Without a Face in a mainstream theater on Market Street in San Francisco when it arrived here three decades ago, dubbed, cut and rejoicing in the name The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. A wisecracking teenaged audience, roused for the gore, was singing out, "Somebody's going to get it"--a distracting, aggravating response to a film that's frozen poetry but an honest response just the same. We may not be bit by vampires or eaten by monsters, but we'll all end up in the hands of doctors someday, Eyes Without a Face reminds us: Somebody's going to get it, all right. That somebody is you.

Eyes Without a Face (Unrated; 90 mins.), directed by Georges Franju, written by Franju, Jean Redon, Claude Sautet, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Gascar, from the novel by Redon, photographed by Eugen Schüfftan and starring Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli and Edith Scob.

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From the June 20-26, 1996 issue of Metro

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