Saturday 14 April 2018

The Question in Bodies #10: Still Ill, Part One

Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face) (1960)

So after the double of writing about Salò and Tetsuo, I thought I'd go easy on myself, introduce myself to something a bit easier to cope with, a little lighter, safer even. I know, I thought, I'll write about something older, one of the oldest films I have, because a horror film, even a horror film, from nearly sixty years ago can't be that extreme. Right?

I know, I thought, I'll watch Eyes Without a Face (or, if you want to give it its original French title, Les Yeux Sans Visage).

Those of you who are, unlike me at that point, familiar with Georges Franju’s demented opus, will no doubt be laughing at my deluded innocence. To be honest, I'm laughing at my deluded innocence. I mean 1960 was the year Psycho came out too, and it's not like it's a year of cinematic comfort exactly, so you should take this as a cautionary tale.

Still, 85 minutes of knuckle-gnawing later, 85 minutes of, at times, yelling at the screen OH HOLY CRAP NO, here I am.
Heaving and straining.

The start of the film is pretty film noir: here is Louise (Alida Valli, the evil principal from Suspiria) driving, against back projection; it's almost classic in the way that it presents the signifiers of an older sort of film.

The score is almost comically Gallic, a sort of queasy carousel waltz, and Valli’s performance is all ragged nerves and jitters, her constant glances at the figure in the back seat, indistinct in a raincoat and hat, her temporary panic at the headlights behind her and her relief as they turn out to be a lorry wanting to overtake, are all very much the business of a classic thriller. And then she stops the car – it's a Citroën, of course it's a Citroën, because this is the most French film ever – and drags the person from the back seat, with some difficulty, and we realise it's a dead body, which she dumps in the river.

And the build up to that very mundane, very realistic moment of huffing and straining, the messy, clumsy tug of it, suddenly drags the film out of the realm of the classically cinematic. It feels damp, and awkward, and sore. And the fairground organ score and the back-projected driving shots have almost been a sort of a trap: suddenly something that looked like one sort of film turned into another.

This will happen again.

Louise is the assistant of Professor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) a pioneering surgeon, and an expert on skin grafts and transplantation. Genessier caused an accident not long ago which he survived intact, but which horribly disfigured his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), leaving her without a face to speak of, just an open wound where her face should be, with only her eyes unharmed. She has to wear a mask. One of the ways the film blindsides you is that much is made visually of how we don't see her face until the mask goes on, how she's shot from behind, or covered by a cushion or pillow or her hands… until we do. And then the scream that greets it is earned.
The mask, the non-face Christiane has to wear, is straight out of the Uncanny Valley – hell, it's the A465 right across the Heads of the Uncanny Valleys – and it's somehow in its impassivity indicative of the young woman’s torment. It is not her choice; it's there to spare the gaze of the Professor and his assistant. No one else is going to see the wound that surrounds her eyes. It makes a memorable image of her, is absolutely distinctive, even while it deprives her of individuality and expression.

Genessier, although beloved as a life-saving, innovative physician, is utterly amoral; he's stealing the faces of young women and transplanting them onto his daughter, over and over, in the hopes that they'll take. Louise is a glamorous gender-flipped Igor to Genessier’s Frankenstein, who stalks and befriends lonely young women who come to Paris, lures then to Genessier's château, and delivers them over to the surgeon’s ministrations. Louise hides the scars of her own face-saving surgery beneath a huge pearl choker which is as much a collar as anything around the necks of the dogs that Genessier keeps confined in his cellar in fear and suffering as experimental subjects – and if you hadn't been convinced Genessier was a complete rotter before this, cruelty to animals surely seals the deal.

The faces don't take. Within a few weeks, every time, they rot away, leaving only the open wound. And Christiane, supposedly here as the Professor’s patient, supposedly confined to the château so the Professor can make things right, is herself no more than an experimental subject now, a possession. The Professor, early on, tells her she's widely reported as dead, as if that's something that should comfort her, and literally doesn't seem to have the capacity to understand why she might consider this another level of torment. Christiane is forced into a dazed complicity in the hideous things her father does but a sort of confused, dreamlike compliance, the shuffle of the long term hostage, the institutionalised inmate.

And it is only in Christiane finding her agency, asserting her identity and, violently, refusing to be complicit anymore, that catharsis comes.

(And the ending really is cathartic, especially for animal lovers.)
No reprieve.
Les Yeux Sans Visage succeeds in disturbing you by setting semiotic ambushes, traps for the viewer. A pretty, sugary orchestral air rises as Genessier comes into his daughter’s room; and it seems so old fashioned, until he switches off the radio and the music stops and we're in a different sort of scene. Later, we'll see Genessier and Louise prep their luckless victim Edna (Juliette Mayniel) for surgery, and you think, I know how this is going, expect the camera to move away. But no, the shot stays there, gazing with all the blank intensity of the sociopath, and the scalpel slices the skin, so the blood trickles out, and it cleanly slices down the side of the face, and although finally the shot changes it's not a reprieve, and a moment later you're watching them take the poor woman’s face right off. Franju keeps crafting moments that lead you to expect that he'll flinch – and doesn't. I have no doubt that much of the success of Les Yeux Sans Visage’s cinematography is down to director of photography Eugen Schüfftan, a genius of the craft, who'd been working magic since the silent era (he was responsible for the still jaw-dropping visual effects of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, for example).

We see Christiane, post-operation, apparently restored, but not healed. She feels an intense discomfort. This is not her face. This is not her self. And although the Professor tries to reassure her, he’s not at all reassuring and he knows that, and he knows that the operation has failed. We see, in a montage of distressingly clinical, documentary shots, presented with a voice over from the Professor, as if demonstrating it to a class, the new face rotting away over the space of three weeks, as Christiane rejects it. The carousel score and the classic stylings of the film don't prepare you for a lecture in horror.
The mask.
It's Christiane’s body, we are told, rejecting alien flesh. But does Christiane's mind reject a face that isn't hers? Is the discomfort caused by the queasiness of a body that already rejects the graft? Is her existential discomfort the trigger for her body to reject the new face?

To quote a songwriter whose star has fallen somewhat in recent years:
Does the body rule the mind or the mind rule the body?
I don't know.

It doesn't matter. Christiane's self is mind and body.

To have a face that isn't your own is the beginning of a crisis of self, and in some ways even having no face is better. The grounds of Christiane’s revolt are selfish, not based on guilt over stolen faces, but based upon her own autonomy, her own identity. She is an impassive mask, an image that you never quite get used to, and it's only when she can assert her identity that she can visit revenge on the tormentors who have made her a science experiment, a prisoner, a faceless cipher.

With the imposition of masks, and the mask of flesh is no more her face than the plastic one, Christiane is deprived of her self. She is told she's dead, she's told that she's going to need a new name, new papers. A new identity. Not hers. She wishes she had died. Faceless, nameless, lifeless, she tries to call her fiancé Jacques (François Guérin) but what do you even say? She can barely even utter his name.
Signs of infection.
It's enough to remind Jacques of her, though, and enough to make him suspect something awful, and make an intuitive connection, when asked about a missing girl who was last seen with a woman in a pearl collar. And it's enough for the net to draw in, but not far, not tight, just enough for another surgery to be interrupted, and enough for Christiane to have the space to awaken to her self. And although her revenge is murderous, the first thing she does is to set the next victim free, and it seems right. It's not an altruistic act as such, not an act of solidarity, it's a refusal to be made the subject of more surgery. A refusal to be forced to steal someone else's self. Self-interest requires at least some recognition of human connection, of the rights of others. To be party to atrocity dehumanises us. To regain our humanity, to steal it back, we must be humane. The reification of the self requires the allowance of other selves to exist.

Which, as much of a relief as it is to find a film in this project with a humane core, brings me neatly to the next film I'm planning to write about.

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