Monday, 10 October 2011

Eyes Without a Face


I was drawn to the 1960 French film Eyes Without a Face, directed by Georges Franju, by the names of Boileau and Narcejac. They worked on the script, but it was in fact based on a novel by Jean Redon, of whom I really know nothing. A bit of research suggests that the original book may have been rather pulpy and that B and N added more sophisticated elements.

It's a film about a number of murders, but it's widely described as a horror movie, and for good reason, even though that label does not adequately convey the strangely lyrical nature of many of the scenes. Suffice to say that it's one of the most chilling and disturbing films I have ever seen.

When the film first came out, it was only a minor success and some critics and audiences were appalled by it. More than half a century later, it's been re-evaluated, and its excellence is now very widely acknowledged. Briefly, the story concerns the attempts of a plastic surgeon to reconstruct the face of his terribly disfigured daughter - played, quite brilliantly I thought, by Edith Scob. The doctor is assisted by an equally obsessed woman whose face he had previously restored.

The direction is excellent, and the score, by the legendary Maurice Jarre, makes a real impact, especially in the opening scene, when a woman is driving a car through the night with a mysterious passenger.

Choosing Boileau and Narcejac to work on the story was an inspired decision. The dialogue is sparse, but the terrible story is gripping throughout, all the way to its remarkable conclusion. Not an easy watch, but an impressive piece of work. And if anyone knows more about Jean Redon, I'd be interested to learn it.

8 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - I always enjoy your movie reviews. Thanks for sharing this one. It does sound like the kind of film that draws one in and haunts one later. Definitely sounds like a film worth seeing.

John said...

This movie is beguiling. My first viewing has stayed with my for years. So powerful and poignant and oddly beautiful to watch. It's such a unique movie and an example of a repellent story that could easily be lurid and sensationalized transcending the horror genre to become something of a work of art.

Bob Cornwell said...

Jean Redon does not appear in Claude Mesplède’s invaluable Dictionnaire, probably because his main claim to fame, apart from Eyes Without a Face, is as a screenwriter. IMDB lists seven credits in the period 1956-62, three of them in association with Frédéric Dard, considered “as one of the fathers of the French ‘roman noir’ ” according to the Dard entry in the Dictionnaire. Dard was a John Creasey-like figure, also writing under many pseudonyms, in one legendary period turning out 77 novels in seven years, one of which won the Grand Prix de littérature policière in 1956.
As you appear to have researched the novel, you may have come across a suggestion that ‘Jean Redon’ was one of Dard’s pseudonyms. The Dard estate has, whilst agreeing to a long list of names, specifically ruled that one out.
Dard has however provided just a few clues to Redon’s identity. One French internet site shows the blurb that Dard wrote for the first publication of Eyes Without a Face (the book) in 1959. If my French is up to the task, this indicates that Redon had been a journalist who moved into film publicity, and then into writing for the screen. Of the book, apparently Redon’s only novel, Dard says “this boy is too fond of climactic moments to begin a career as a writer of a ‘roman noir’. So he went straight to the literature of tomorrow: the ‘roman rouge’!
Incidentally your quest for film versions of Boileau/Narçejac novels or scripts should not end with this Franju film. Franju’s next film Pleins Feux sur l’Assassin (Spotlight on a Murderer in the USA) was from an original scenario by the couple. In Raymond Durgnat’s excellent 1967 book on Franju, the pair are credited with saying that Franju was “an old friend even before we collaborated. We very much admired his short films, Franju had read our books.” (Franju, as well as being the co-founder of the Cinematheque Française with Henri Langlois, was, before the feature films, a renowned documentary maker – half of Durgnat’s book is devoted to his documentary work – and I mean documentary in the old sense of the highly individual work by directors like Flaherty, Grierson, Lindsay Anderson and Alain Resnais, rather than the bland, formulaic style so prevalent today.)
And if you by any chance come across a copy of Pleins Feux, please let me know. Over forty years I’ve managed to track down all of Franju’s eight feature films except that one. It’s a tragedy for film fans everywhere that even in cinephile France, only four of these films are available on DVD – and none of them is Pleins Feux sur l’Assassin.
NB Dialogue in this film, by the way, is contributed by playwright Robert Thomas, about whom we corresponded some time ago...

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, John, thank you. Haunting and poignant, you say, and those are the right word. A remarkable film.

Martin Edwards said...

Bob, many thanks - very informative and interesting. I suppose it's too much to hope that Spotlight is available on DVD? I can't find it on Amazon....

Bob Cornwell said...

Martin,
I wish it was that easy! No, not available. The film still exists and can be seen (it was shown twice at the Cinémathèque Française in 2006, and again in 2008). Perhaps some film scholar pursuing the far from fashionable Franju, Boileau/Narçejac or even the mercurial Edith Scob (she’ll be 74 on October 21st, and could be seen earlier this year in Summer Hours, her recent film with Juliette Binoche, shown on BBC4) will trigger the necessary interest from the revivalist DVD companies. If that happens, I'll let you know.
There IS another Franju/Scob film which might interest you, and it IS available on DVD. It is Franju’s 1963 film Judex, based on the 1916 film serial by Arthur Bernède and the legendary film pioneer Louis Feuillade, who in 1913 first filmed Fantomas, the character first created in 1911 in print by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, immortals of early French crime fiction. Feuillade was an important influence on Franju, hence his ‘hommage’ in Judex. Evident also in the film that accompanies it on DVD, 1974’s Nuits Rouges (aka Shadowman), and available from Masters of Cinema – and, this time, from Amazon!

Anonymous said...

Hi,
I was interested in the piece, and it's a film which I love and I wondered whether you, or anyone reading, might have nay information on the book itself. Does it exist in English translation?

Martin Edwards said...

Anon, I too would like to know the answer! I haven't ever seen the book myself.