Wednesday, 5 August 2015

DVD Review/ dual format: Eyes Without A Face (BFI)

Georges Franju's second feature was released in 1960, and adapted from the novel by Jean Redon.
The film begins with a car journey that culminates with a lifeless body dumped in the River Seine. The driver of the vehicle is Louise (Alida Valli) who is acting on the instructions of Professor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur). His daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) suffered horrendous facial burns as a result of a car crash, with her drunken father at the wheel.
The Professor is called to the morgue, and misleads the authorities by identifying the corpse as his daughter. In fact, Genessier has been trying to restore his daughter's face by Heterograft: a surgical technique which involves the transplanting of living tissues from one human being to another. The Professor had already performed the same operation on Louise's face, and now she is charged with supplying young, beautiful women who are sedated for this stomach-churning procedure, while Stephane - her face covered by a skin-tight white mask - prowls her father's chateau like a phantom.
One such victim is Edna Gruber (Juliette Mayniel); a gorgeous Swiss lady who is picked up by Louise in a theatre queue, and offered a room in "a lovely neighbourhood". As the car stops at a railway crossing, Louise remarks Paris is less than
20 minutes away as a train flashes past, though for Edna, it may as well reside in another country.
With her unease steadily growing, Edna is chloroformed, and becomes the latest skin donor.
Franju's film may not have received the acclaim it deserved initially, but the passage of time has seen its reputation grow to become a classic.
Indeed, there are many directors who acknowledged Franju's work including Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, Clive Barker, John Woo, Pedro Almodovar and - more recently - Leo Carax with the brilliant "Holy Motors" which also cast Edith Scob; this time as a chauffeur.
Scob is excellent here, delivering a physical performance from the confines of her mask, and displaying angelic beauty during the brief period when her skin is as it once was.
Brasseur is also on fine form, giving the mad scientist a wide berth, instead coming over as a grief-stricken father whose guilt compels him to makes amends for the accident and its grievous results.As for Valli... well, she's Valli. Impossibly gorgeous and drawing on her vast experience to play a woman who is in debt to such an extent that she'll do anything asked of her. Essentially, it's another agent of evil role for the actress, anticipating her work for Dario Argento in the next decade.

During a screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival, seven people fainted and the surgical procedure - with scalpel, pliers and a pencil used to graphic effect - is undoubtedly upsetting for those of a nervous disposition.
It may be grim subject matter, but "Eyes Without A Face" has moments of great poetic beauty and, some 55 years on, is still gaining new admirers to a truly fantastique landmark production.

This BFI release came to me in the form of a DVD. Here, "Eyes Without A Face" looks quite beautiful, faithfully relaying DOP Eugen Shufftan's luminous monochrome photography. Everything here looks crisp and clean with an abundance of fine detail.
The first item in the extras is a commentary track from Tim Lucas. Tim tells us the late, great Mario Bava admired Franju's film and identifies a scene which inspired a set-piece in "Blood And Black Lace". Tim also mentions two episodes of "The Twilight Zone" ("Eye Of The Beholder" and "The Afterhours") and talks about Jess Franco's "The Awful Dr. Orlof", later moving onto Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In"; another film influenced by Franju.
DOP Eugen Shufftan is also covered as Tim mentions "Metropolis", "Port Of Shadows" and "The Hustler".
We learn a great deal about Edith Scob; the novel and comic strip; Franju's short films and an amazing amount of background on several cast members. It's a stimulating experience from - in my opinion - the best in the business.

"Monsieur et Madame Curie" (13m 36s) is a 1953 short on the life and work of the Curie's, told through the words of Marie's book.
Nicole Stephane takes the role of Marie who was born in Warsaw and came to Paris to study science. There, she met Pierre Curie (Lucien Hubert) in 1895, and their experiments discovered a new phenomenon - radioactivity.
Working through tiring, challenging conditions, the pair eventually found the first proof of atomic weight, winning the Nobel Prize for physics. It's an interesting short, and an example of Franju's fine work outside of feature films.

"La Premiere Nuit" (18m 52s) is a 1958 short, in which a 10-year old boy spends a night in the Paris Metro.
The presence of a little girl is drawn to our attention early on, and we see her ascending the Metro steps as darkness falls. The hustle and bustle below ground makes this a fascinating place, with groups of people scurrying to get the last train that will take them to the comfort of home. When the throngs depart, however, The Metro takes on a different persona, with imagination running riot. We see, on several occasions, that same little girl who appears on slowly moving trains, looking straight at our central character, and evaporating into thin air at one point. Is she the deceased sister of the young boy, or perhaps a class mate who simply went home from school one day and didn't return? Whatever, it's a wholly unsettling experience, which perhaps places her in the group of ghostly children: a theme that would surface brilliantly in the work of Bava and Fellini further down the line. There's also a dream sequence to consider, which may well overturn any theories one may have initially formed.
"La Premiere Nuit" reminds me, in places, of Jean Rollin's "La Rose de fer", and is a work you may well return to on several occasions.

"Le Fleurs maldives de Georges Franju" (46m 21s) is an overview of the director's career, by Pierre-Henri Gilbert and shot in 2009.
Edith Scob sets the ball rolling, labelling "Eyes" as "a key film", and she's joined by Kate Ince who is the author of a book on Franju. Kate talks about Feuillade's films; the Edinburgh screening and Franju's career and methods. Cineaste Jean-Pierre Mocky and Franju's assistant Bernard Queysanne also appear, together with Claude Chabrol. The participants cover Franju's approach to actors; his methods of working and focus on "Eyes Without A Face". Edith Scob - looking so beautiful - makes some particularly valuable contributions, helping us to draw a picture of her director, and this lady returns for the final disc extra.

"For Your Eyes Only - an interview with Edith Scob" runs for 16m 40s and was shot in 2014.
Edith recalls her first meeting with Franju; talks about acting in a mask and explains why her isolation on the set helped with her role ; a point Tim Lucas makes in his commentary track.
She also acknowledges the help she received from Pierre Brasseur; talks about Alida Valli, and expresses her pleasure at being asked to appear in "Holy Motors". She also comments on the longevity of "Eyes Without A Face".
It's a great addition to an already impressive batch of extras, and a reminder of the great value of physical media. You don't get this added value with streaming films, and I'd like to think we'll all continue to support all those who take the time and incur expense to really take us inside a film and into the minds of those who helped create them.

The BFI have also included a booklet containing writing from Kate Ince, Isobel Stevens, Roberto Cueto Llera, Raymond Durgnat, Kevin Jackson and Michael Brooke.
The contributions include a look at Maurice Jarre's soundtrack; the handicaps faced by the director with regard to various restrictions and essays on the accompanying shorts. Highly recommended reading.

"Eyes Without A Face" is released by the BFI on 24th August in dual format.

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