Movie Review: “Les yeux sans visage” (Georges Franju, France/Italy 1960)

Ranked number 323 in 2012 Sight & Sound Critics Poll (5 votes).

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (Tom Six, The Netherlands 2009) created something of a sensation around the pure shock value of its premise, which was a continuation of a long line of films adapting the basic premise of the surgical evil of Frankenstein into a more modern, more misogynistic context. The very idea of having a surgeon attach people (two of them women) to one another surgically, forcing them to move by crawling together and two of them to sustain themselves by consuming the waste of the others was of course shocking, and the film claimed to place itself in this long legacy of films that simply did not care about niceties. Instead, it was a film that had absolutely nothing to offer beyond the shock value of its premise (Anyone who is reading this and hasn’t seen it, count yourself lucky and don’t start feeling like you missed anything.), and yet that pure shock value carried it to some commercial success and gave it a strong life on the internet that has carried on to this day, with some still considering the film over the line while others argue that anyone who can stomach the shock of the film will be richly rewarded.

In many ways, Les yeux sans visage is the Human Centipede of its time. The French film community, known for its high academic opinion of itself, had argued before that the intrinsic artistry of the country’s approach to the medium was at odds with the horror film, which was then as now considered the lowest form of the art. Even the release of one of the greatest horror films of all time, les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France 1955), five years earlier had apparently not prepared the French critics for the release of what is often considered the country’s first horror film in Les yeux sans visage, and they reacted accordingly, savaging the film as low art not worthy of being produced in France. The same reaction carried over to other countries, with one critic who reviewed the film well claiming that it almost resulted in losing his/her job. Years later, as often happens with “shocking” films, the film underwent a critical re-evaluation and was now considered a great film, some even considering it a masterpiece.

However, like Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958), it seems to me that the re-evaluation has taken things too far and praised a fine film that was unfairly denigrated on its release to a level that it does not deserve. It’s a fine film, and its shocking surgery scene is in fact still far more graphic than most films would attempt (truthfully, it was more effectively shocking than any scene in The Human Centipede), but it just isn’t saying that much and isn’t doing much to make what it is saying stand out.

The basic story of the film is short and simple. Docteur Génessier, a brilliant surgeon, sees his daughter suffer severe facial disfigurement in a car accident. Not wanting his daughter to suffer with this disfigurement for what remains of her life, he sets out to capture a young woman and attempt to transplant her face onto his daughter. His repeated failures result in the deaths of young women and his daughter losing faith in him and feeling like one of the dogs on which he experiments with regularity.

If that sounds like a familiar anti-science horror plot, it should, because it is again a modernization of Frankenstein. However, the film also complicates matters by not knowing whether to stay with Frankenstein‘s central theme of the dangers of science or instead focus on the theme of how much beauty matters in society. It makes both points rather bluntly at various points but not sticking to one makes it feel rather unfocused. For every moment we get like Louise saying that she owes her life to Génessier for reconstructing her face that clearly makes a point about society’s worship at the altar of beauty, we get another scene like Christiane’s comment that he is experimenting on her just like one of his dogs that goes back to attacking science. This lack of focus is the film’s largest problem, and it’s a shame because the premise really seems to lend itself to the beauty commentary so well.

Visually, Franju and cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, take an unusual tack that makes sense with Franju’s background as a documentary filmmaker, attempting to make the film look as mundane as possible so that the sheer craziness of the plot seems all the more realistic. It’s an interesting idea that works in that it keeps the shocking plot from seeming quite as shocking as it otherwise would be, but the lack of any attempt to use the lighting, composition, etc. to enhance the film’s visual point further confuses a narrative that already lacked focus.

Acting-wise, there’s little to say. Aida Valli, as the disturbingly loyal procurer of women for the surgeon, is very effective, but her performance is mostly about being cold, something that’s relatively easy to do. Pierre Brasseur, the nominal star, is appropriately stone-faced. The only character who has any real emotion to show is the daughter, Christiane, and we never really see her face, presumably because there was simply no ability to show her face on camera. None of the performances are weak, but they also just don’t require anything of the actors.

Maurice Jarre’s unusual score deserves a note. It moves back and forth between unusual circus-style themes and more traditionally haunting horror fare. Jarre was always a bit of an odd composer, and this film is no exception.

Movie Review: “Fatal Attraction” (Adrian Lyne, USA 1987)

This film is a great example of what I mean when I talk about films needing to have a unifying point rather than being about narrative. It’s a film whose point, to the extent that it does have one, is the power and strength of a loving family. However, it is so busy following the twists and turns of its narrative that it just doesn’t make its point. And, of course, because it’s a film, its story comes across as an over-simplistic horror movie plot with thin characters and no real depth of any kind.

The plot is simple and seemingly interesting enough: A guy, Dan Gallagher, has an affair, but when he tries to break it off, the mistress, Alex Forrest, turns out to be a raving lunatic whose obsession with him will not allow the relationship to end.

Finding a point in this film is difficult, but the ultimate resolution of the plot, with Dan and his wife coming together to slay the monster that has stalked them for so long; the fact that it really is a horror movie about a danger to a marriage; and the final shot of the film being a photograph of Dan’s family suggests that Adrian Lyne made this film about family. The problem is that one could make a case for a number of other ideas being the “point” of the film, which means it didn’t really make one. One could say, for example, that the film is a “Men’s Rights Activist” screed against feminist advances, telling us the danger of women being sexually active and aggressive and how they can use their evil wiles to tempt otherwise good men and then control them with their obsessive behavior and pregnancies. I think Lyne may even have given us what little time that he does with Beth Gallagher, Dan’s wife, in order to rebut this point, since Beth’s purpose in the narrative is really just to exist as a part of Dan’s life and possible target for Alex, not to take part in any of the action and Beth is definitely the opposite of Alex in just about every conceivable way. That’s why I think the family angle is a better explanation of the point of the film.* However, the fact that one can make a credible case for a number of possible points tells you how poorly-focused this film is.

So, if the film is just telling a story without a point, surely a good enough story could still make it work, right? Well, movies aren’t long enough. I know I make this point a lot, but this film is a good example of what I’m saying. It runs one minute shy of two hours and is essentially a two-person film, and yet what we actually know about the characters is that Dan is a horny attorney and Alex is an obsessive monster. We get no hints about why Dan was so willing so easily to jump into bed with Alex, whether it was out of character for him to do so, whether he just enjoys the feeling of power he can get from such a relationship, etc. We get no deeper knowledge on Alex, someone who clearly suffers from some extreme psychological problems, than that she is inexplicably and dangerously obsessed with Dan after one night. We get no sense at all of the personality of any of the other characters and very little of Dan’s. All of the aspects of the plot that could be interesting if fully explored are left empty, leaving behind a shell in the shape of a horror film. And it’s not because Lyne and screenwriter James Dearden are incompetent—it’s just the nature of the medium.

Instead of trying to tell a fully-developed, well-rounded story, Lyne fits the story into a traditional horror movie narrative. Instead of a psychologically-damaged person, Alex is a monster whose evil is slowly being revealed throughout the film. She even has a typical horror movie monster “Is he dead?” jump scare moment at the end. In between, she tempts Dan into transgressing by having an affair with her, because, as Sitterson and Hadley tell us in The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2012), “They don’t transgress, they can’t be punished” and he does nothing but run from her, no different from a babysitter in a slasher film.

Visually, Lyne and cinematographer Howard Atherton simply don’t do much to bring any attention. It’s competent and there’s nothing that visually detracts from the film but there’s little that’s interesting, either. The use some low-key lighting to emphasize some of the more depressed parts of the narrative but mostly keep things pretty bright and simple. If anything, they seem to be intentionally going for a rather muted color palette, perhaps to make the film appear more “real” and “everyday” than the monster movie narrative might otherwise make it seem. It’s not terribly interesting, but it’s not bad.

The acting is rather odd in that it includes one amazing performance in the only role with any depth while a couple of other actors manage to be annoyingly unbelievable in flat roles that required almost nothing of them. Glenn Close is every bit as good as the reputation of her performance says, imbuing her monster with a depth and realism that actually makes the film’s narrative seem sillier than it otherwise would be through its sheer power. Meanwhile, Michael Douglas is his usual self: flat and dull but also filled with scenes where he seems to be saying, “I’m acting now” by talking more slowly. Dan Gallagher is not an interesting part and we have little clue about his personality, but Douglas’s unbelievability makes it even worse. And then there’s Anne Archer as Dan’s wife, Beth. She doesn’t have a ton of screen time and has no personality, and yet Archer still manages to be awful. She is so wooden and unbelievable that Douglas seems natural by comparison, which is really pretty amazing.

Maurice Jarre’s scores almost always deserve some attention, but this one really wasn’t very good. It was sometimes totally obtrusive and it felt like a score dated from about 1970. It’s a rare miss for one of the great film composers in history.

All told, it’s a rather enjoyable film but one that lacks any real depth. It’s a horror movie with a slightly unusual villain but otherwise nothing to give it any real attraction. Close’s performance is incredible and harrowing, but it’s also not enough to turn a rather lifeless film into anything special.

*Beth is admittedly an ineffectual character with no strength at all who even just seems to accept Dan’s infidelity pretty easily. If, as I suspect, Lyne was including more screen time with her just to rebut the argument that his film is an anti-feminist screed, it doesn’t work very well, and the film is still undoubtedly susceptible to that argument.