Criterion Sunday 260: Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960)

This is one of those precursors to any number of schlocky, gory horror movies of the coming decades (and indeed was first released with a similarly B-movie title in the States), but manages to be somehow elegant enough that Édith Scob in the more recent interview on the Criterion disc contends it is not a horror movie. (It is very much a horror movie.) But that assessment makes sense because it sits somewhere between older films about mad scientists performing experiments and the French policiers and thrillers of the 1950s (themselves staples of the Criterion catalogue). Of course, key to director Georges Franju’s vision of horror is that the scientist at the heart of this film, Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), isn’t mad at all — he’s just driven by a love for his daughter Christiane (Scob), whom he has caused to be disfigured, in conjunction with a very loose sense of ethical responsibility. The horror then is really not in anything we see — though there are some brief gory and troubling images — but in the way it all seems so complacently self-evident to the doctor and his nurse accomplice (Alida Valli). It remains an elegant film about very inelegant people.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is one of Franju’s short films, Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949), which is undoubtedly a difficult film to watch, and one can only be thankful it’s in black-and-white. After all, it presents the work of a French abattoir contrasted with a small town idyll and the benign indifference of the people tasked with chopping up these living creatures. It’s a horror film of sorts but largely avoids editorialising.
  • There’s an 8 minute interview with Scob from 2013, in which she discusses the film and it making, and her place in it.
  • An odd little 5 minute French TV piece has Franju being interviewed about the ‘cinema of the fantastic’ by a man in a silly wig and a prominent chemistry set in the foreground — presumably as part of some kind of TV themed bit about mad scientists.
  • A 7 minute excerpt from a 1985 French TV documentary presents interviews with Boileau and Narcejac about their crime writing partnership, though they don’t specifically touch on this film.
  • Finally there are French and US trailers, the latter particularly interesting because it’s for the original release under the title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus as a double-bill along with a creature feature called The Manster (he’s half man! half monster!).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Georges Franju; Writers Franju, Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac and Claude Sautet (based on the novel by Redon); Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan; Starring Pierre Brasseur, Édith Scob, Alida Valli; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 11 July 2019 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, July 1999).

Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis

Cécile Decugis (1934-2017) has never really been a prominent film name, which is a shame. She may have only made a handful of short and medium-length films as director (which I like well enough), but she makes it to my Women Filmmakers’ feature for her more prominent work as a film editor. She worked on some of the most important French Nouvelle Vague films of the 1950s and 1960s, films which were known particularly for their innovative editing (usually ascribed to their more famous directors). These films include many of the works of Éric Rohmer (she worked with him through to the 1980s), as well as a few other minor works you may not have heard of like À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959) and Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959, along with Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte, another editor, of Martinican heritage). Her activism on behalf of Algerian independence began in the late-1950s with her first short film, and ended up costing her two years in prison from 1960-62. Her own films were often about people in a certain existential confusion, it seems to me, and I got a chance to see them at the invaluable Il Cinema Ritrovato festival (though I only caught half of the full programme).

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L’Avenir (Things to Come, 2016)

The last two films I’ve seen at the cinema have been this and Andrzej Żuławski’s Cosmos, both French films by directors with non-French ancestry, both set amongst a close-knit group of intellectuals gravitating away from the city, but otherwise films with quite a different temperament. For where Cosmos is dead set with every fibre of its creation against bourgeois affectations, Things to Come instead mounts something of an apologia for the bourgeoisie.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself, and the comparison comes from happenstance, so I shan’t get too bogged down in such comparisons; suffice to say I enjoyed Mia Hansen-Løve’s new film very much (and I am clearly also partial to the consolations of the middle-class). Its pleasures are not immediate, but come from an intense focus on the character of Nathalie (played by an ever-excellent Isabelle Huppert), a philosophy teacher at a French high school, who prides herself on opening her students’ minds, even as her own marriage seems stuck. For characters whose lives are so mired in stasis (whether existentially or literally — there are a lot of very abstruse books, and most characters crack them open to read on a regular basis), the camerawork and staging for much of the film is filled with movement. My feeling of it, though, is that this constant movement settles down after a succession of personal setbacks (Nathalie’s husband resolves to leave her, and her mother dies suddenly). She is left to reassess her life, living for a while with her mother’s cat Pandora at a former student’s countryside commune.

As I said, the film’s pleasures are chiefly in the observation of Nathalie’s life’s rituals, and in little amusing details. I particularly liked, as just one example, the sequence where she tries to angrily consign her now-moved-out-husband’s consolatory flowers to the bin, but finding it too narrow for their showy proportions, bags them up in a blue Ikea bag and throws them in her flat’s rubbish skip, pauses, then goes back to retrieve the Ikea bag. I’m not even sure the divorce is really the key to the film (it seems central to a lot of the film’s write-ups), so much as a structural conceit. Things to Come is more interested in the life of a woman who has moved away from predicating her existence on men (or indeed any sense of community, it sometimes seems); it somewhat reminds me of Gertrud in this respect, even if it doesn’t share many of Dreyer’s formal qualities or staginess.

The film may not have the edginess or punch of some young directors’ works (or indeed that of Żuławski), but it is reminiscent instead of the best of bourgeois French cinema (Assayas, say, or Téchiné), seemingly gentle on the surface yet hiding barbed insights.

L'Avenir (Things to Come, 2016)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mia Hansen-Løve; Cinematographer Denis Lenoir; Starring Isabelle Huppert, Roman Kolinka, André Marcon, Édith Scob; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 3 September 2016.