Tuesday, December 06, 2005

When Reality Catches Up: Franju's Eyes Without a Face Comes True!

First, a little anecdote:

I pulled into the local post office parking lot yesterday while listening to NPR's afternoon news coverage of Condoleezza Rice's tour of Europe and her ongoing denial of abuse and torture of detainees (and carefully worded denial of US imprisonment of detainees in covert European sites).

As the clip of Rice's distinctive through-her-teeth assertions played for the third time since noon, I shut off my car and climbed out to pick up my mail. Parked alongside me was a fellow in a pickup truck I'd noticed sitting in the cab as I pulled in. Turns out he was listening to the same report: as he climbed out of his truck at the same time I stepped out of my car, we made eye contact.

"How can Rice just lie like that?" he angrily exclaimed.

"We'll hear more of the same tomorrow," I replied.

I forgot about this fleeting moment and went on about my work. I went to sleep last night as a 1930s movie my wife Marj was watching featured a dance sequence with the tune "Brazil" playing in the background.

I woke up this morning to a fresh clip of Rice, now tempering her denials to counter confirmation from the German government that a man claiming to have been kidnapped, tortured, and released by the CIA in Germany was indeed erroneously misidentified and subsequently kidnapped, detained for five months (no firm confirmation of torture as yet that I've heard), and released without apology and left to his own devices after it was ascertained he was not the man the CIA thought he was; in fact, the episode was apparently covered up by covert agreement of the US and Germany, and is now causing great embarrassment to all.

Still laying in bed, I think of the exchange with the man in the post office parking lot, and the tune "Brazil" begins to swell and play in my head...

Shit. Terry Gilliam was right.

We're already here.

21st Century science and medicine has once again caught up with the horror movies of my youth.

I followed with some excitement the news reports late last week of a successful (thus far) face transplant in France. A transplant team headed by Dr. Jean-Michel Dubernard had years ago successfully completed the first hand transplant; on December 2nd of this past week, Dubernard and his surgical team announced that they had transplanted the lower half of a female face (the below-the-eyes portion including the complete nose, lips, chin) onto a 38-year-old woman from Valenciennes, whose pet Labrador had torn off most of her face back in May (the dog was subsequently "destroyed," according to various sources).

Dubernard was engaged at the behest of Dr. Bernard Devauchelle, the head of facial and jaw surgery at Amiens University Hospital, and the transplant was successfully completed with the active assistance of Belgian surgeon Dr. Benoit Lengele; the 'donor face' was removed from an unidentified brain-dead woman in the northern France city of Lille. Details were released at a news conference last Friday at Edouard-Herriot Hospital in Lyon, and the Saturday December 3 New York Times featured some incredible CGI images of the restoration and recreations of the woman's face before and after surgery, along with a chillingly clinical photo of the operation that evoked, with startling precision, the unforgettable transplant sequence in Georges Franju's 1958 classic Les Yeux Sans Visage/Eyes Without a Face.

In fact, the headline of the NY Times story could serve as advertising ballyhoo for a rerelease of Franju's film: "Dire Wounds, a New Face, a Glimpse in a Mirror" (by Craig S. Smith; The NY Times, Saturday, December 3, 2005, pp. A1, A6). I don't mean to come across as overly morbid here, but there are other curious echoes: Dr. Dubernard's statement, "We had a patient with a very severe disfigurement that would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to repair with classic surgery"; assertions (by the patient's estranged teenage daughter) that the patient is not "psychologically stable enough for the operation" and may be suicidal; the risk implicit in the procedure (according to Smith, "...a 33 percent risk of death, a 33 percent risk that the body will reject the graft and only a 33 percent chance that the transplant will prove successful..."; ibid., pg. A6). The disfigurement by canine is an unnerving echo of Franju, too: his film ends with the ruthless patriarchal surgeon having his face torn off by vivisection-specimen dogs released by his now-mad daughter (the unwilling recipient of his repeated unsuccessful transplants).

Franju's parable of a renegade surgeon covertly experimenting on his own daughter to restore her face after a car accident he caused, harvesting fresh faces from unwilling kidnapped 'donors' snatched from the street by his devoted predatory female assistant, is of course light years from the current case history. This was no secret-basement-lab operation: it was an openly performed, medically sanctioned and decidedly adventurous surgical (and sorely-needed) rescue of a victim of a horrible accident. No mad scientists, kidnappings, or guerilla surgical procedures here.t

Sill, one cannot help being fascinated by the hall-of-mirrors reverberations between cinema and reality in this case, both emerging from the same country. The image of that brain-dead donor laying in her bed now sans visage is an unsettling one, regardless, a Franju composition in and of itself.

When Franju's film debuted over 45 years ago, it was critically reviled and reportedly prompted faintings at its initial screenings; now, its central premise and most unnerving passage (the surgery itself) is part and parcel of our world, a reality.


Here's a little background for you on Franju's masterpiece, which is among my favorite films of all time. The following is excerpted from the upcoming Black Coat Press book SR Bissette's BLUR Vol. 3 -- the third of four volumes collecting my complete weekly newspaper Video Views columns from 1999-2001 -- which will be out in 2006. This review originally appeared February 1, 2001, in conjunction with Kino's vhs release of Franju's classic; per usual, please remember this was written for a family newspaper of readers I had to assume knew nothing about film history, much less genre films:

The recent revival of influential European horror films of the ‘60s and ‘70s on video and DVD is worthy of an article in and of itself, but Kino Video’s current release of Georges Franju’s masterpiece LES YEUX SANS VISAGE (EYES WITHOUT A FACE, 1959) is particularly noteworthy. From its opening title sequence -- shot from within a car hurtling through the night to the strains of Maurice Jarre’s slippery main theme, its flickering headlights strobbing the splayed bare limbs of the trees overhead as if they were spider webs -- Franju’s thriller is eerily mesmerizing, fusing an uncanny dreamlike atmosphere with the excesses of the notorious Parisian Grand Guignol.

Like fellow French artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (who greatly admired this film), Franju infuses even the cruelest passages with genuine poetry. The skeletal narrative is pure Guignol (from a novel by Jean Redon, adapted in collaboration with Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the authors of Les Diaboliques and the source novel for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Aided by his utterly devoted assistant Louise (Alida Valli), celebrated plastic surgeon Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) is covertly kidnapping young girls to graft their facial features onto the ravaged face of his long-suffering daughter Christiane (Edith Scob). Though forty years on and filmed in black and white (by master cinematographer Eugen Shuftan), Franju’s horrors still pack a punch -- particularly in Kino’s uncut print, which restores footage never before seen in America -- in part because of the sterile quiet they occur within. The film’s most infamous passage details Genessier’s transplant procedure with ruthless clarity, shrouded in a silence pierced only by the cold ring of surgical instruments, the soft rustle of clothing, and the occasional offscreen barking of Genessier’s caged dogs.

Unnerving as the overt mayhem remains, it’s the austere allure of the film that lingers, embodied by Edith Scob’s unforgettable performance beneath the porcelain mask that hides her disfigurement. Christiane is a truly tragic figure, and Franju and Scob engrave her plight into our hearts. In a film brimming with indelible images, Scob’s pantomime and iconic beauty haunts its most memorable moments: accepting Louise’s strange, almost canine affection as her hair is brushed; gliding down the stairs and into the operation chamber to contemplate her father’s handiwork; gingerly cradling the phone receiver to call her fiance (who believes she is dead) and whisper his name; pausing to accept a “kiss” from her father’s tortured dogs as she frees them from their pens, her hair stirred by the freed white doves that flit around her head.

Franju remains a sadly neglected filmmaker in his own country and an unknown here. This, his second feature, received a cursory theatrical release in the U.S., badly dubbed and hideously retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus to play grindhouses on a double-bill with the US/Japanese two-headed-man shocker The Manster. Though critics Pauline Kael and Raymond Durgnat sang its praises, the film was ignored and almost immediately “lost.” Later exiled (and cut further) to rare showings on late night television, a proper revival of Eyes Without a Face is long overdue. Thankfully, Kino’s restored subtitled version is exquisite, a vast improvement over ‘gray-market’ bootlegs and an earlier Interama Inc. video release. Though has yet to issue the film on DVD, it certainly deserves the added luster such a showcase would bring (coupled, perhaps, with Franju’s seminal 1949 short film Le Sang des Bete/Blood of the Beasts).

[Blog Note: Kino indeed released the film on DVD a couple of years ago, and included that very short among its extras -- highest recommendation you purchase a copy ASAP! - SRB]

Countless suspense and horror films have pirated Eyes Without a Face, from Jess Franco’s The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962) and later Faceless to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) to John Woo’s Face/Off (1998). None have matched the power of Franju’s ravishing, glacial nightmare. This is a classic, not to be missed! (Made almost a decade before the MPAA ratings system, Eyes Without a Face is unrated, but it most likely would be rated ‘PG-13’ or a soft ‘R’ for its theme, gore, violence, and mild suggested sexuality.)


More on this tomorrow, unless Condy does something even more outrageous in Europe as that particular news story unfolds...

[12:30 PM note: The news story in its current form is at
  • We Fucked Up, Bigtime, and Have To Admit It.

  • Here's an excerpt:

    "U.S. Admits Botched Detention, Merkel Says"
    By ANNE GEARAN, AP Diplomatic Writer
    Tue Dec 6, 8:35 AM ET

    BERLIN - German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday that the United States has admitted making a mistake in the case of a German national who claimed he was wrongfully imprisoned by the CIA.

    Merkel spoke during a press conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who refused to discuss specifics with reporters. The two women leaders' first meeting was dominated by questions about U.S. terrorism policies, including the five-month detention of Lebanese-born Khaled al-Masri and reports of secret CIA prisons and potentially illegal use of European airports and airspace to transport terror suspects.

    "The American administration is not denying" it erred in the case of al-Masri, Merkel said through a translator.

    Merkel welcomed that admission and added that she is grateful for Rice's assurances that the United States conducts anti-terror operations legally and without the use of torture..."

    To quote my amigo Joe: "They lie!"

    Like rugs.]

    Have a great day. I'm off to the Center for Cartoon Studies; my penultimate class of this first semester is this afternoon, and sure to be an eventful day!