It was a bit of an early Halloween theme at movie night this week, the feature film deliberately so and the short, while unplanned, even more so. It turned out that Kevin didn’t select a short at all, but with the brief run time of the feature, and the fact that there was a short included on the Criterion DVD, we pushed Kevin to show the short over his mild objections.
Yeah, trust the guy who has seen it.
The short was essentially the first film by Georges Franju, the director of the feature (he is listed in IMDB as directing one short 15 years earlier, but it appears that this one launched his career). It was called Le sang des bêtes (“Blood of the Beasts”) and the title could not by any means be accused of false advertising. The short film is a realist tour through the abbatoirs of 1949 Paris.
It starts out tamely enough with a series of scenes in the outskirts of Paris, you got your bucolic scenes, you got your lovebirds on a walk, you got your quaint and intriguing abandoned objects. And then you’ve got your statue of a bull.
Folks, this is where you thank every thing that you hold holy that the film is in merciful black and white. And this is where the film stills in this review will end. Because true to its title, we follow horse, cow, calf, pig, sheep – at some point you lose track of exactly which species we HAVEN’T seen yet – on their journey through the slaughterhouse. Do you know how much blood comes out of a horse when you slit its throat? Now I do. Deep, dark, mercifully gray blood. Some animals are bolt-gunned first, some are simply decapitated with a single stroke.
This goes on for about 20 minutes.
Needless to say, though it merely depicted the situation as it stood in the slaughterhouses of Paris, this is the single most graphic, grisly, hard-hitting film we have ever shown (or likely will ever show) at movie night.
The whole film intends to (and does a good job of) juxtaposing the brutal sights and sounds of the charnel with the efficiency and business-like attitude of the butchers meeting the meat needs of postwar France. As the film says:
‘I will strike you without anger and without hate… like a butcher’ said Baudelaire. ‘Without anger and without hate and with the simply good humour of killers who whistle or sing while slitting throats. Because one has to eat every day and to feed others even if it requires difficult and often dangerous work.’
Would this be an effective piece to recruit vegetarians? Sure. But for myself and those who prefer to eat meat, here’s a little something to ease the shock of this film:
And now, we can move on to the gentler psychological thriller of the feature presentation: 1960’s Les Yeux Sans Visage (“Eyes Without A Face”). We begin with what must be a commonplace scene in France – a woman dumping body in a river.
Well, we kind of get the impression that Louise here is up to no good, and when the body finally washes up and we hear the police breathlessly talking about how the body’s face is missing, that’s kind of the capper.
In the meantime we meet Dr. Génessier, a medical expert on organ transplants. It turns out that his daughter has gone missing and he’s bravely muddling through his university lectures despite it all. When he finally gets the call from the morgue about the dead faceless girl, he rushes down and grimly makes the identification.
But there’s no fooling us, the audience. We’re too savvy. It’s too convenient that he’s involved in skin transplants. He’s not distraught enough on identifying the body. It’s billed as a horror film, more or less. And even though the film goes through the process of the sham funeral we know that the daughter is at home, horribly disfigured from a car accident or the like and this dead faceless girl is merely cover.
We were right, it was a car accident. So we’ve got this faceless dead-to-the-world daughter who goes around wearing this creepy emotionless mask and is really ambivalent about the whole thing. One the one hand, daddy is trying to get her a new face. On the other hand, he’s kind of slaughtering Parisian women.
Like this woman, for instance, who was picked up in a theater queue by Louise. Louise gave her the standard line, you know, dinner, a movie, maybe later you can come over to my place and we can surgically remove your face. Those Parisian women are so easy!
What follows is, while obviously fake (unlike the shudder-inducing short), probably the most remarkable face-removing scene in movie history.
You see, this is 1960, and you’ve seen the horror films from that era. They all follow the same standard pattern. You show the ethered girl on the operating table, the doctor draws the line where he’s going to cut, he gets out the scalpel – and the camera pulls away. Maybe later you’ll get a bit of blurry no-face action like below (the first and only time we see the daughter without her mask).
But under no circumstances are you expecting to see the actual face removal, much less the scalpel insertion, the full facial cut, the squirting blood, the long, slow process as the skin is separated from the tissue below…I mean, this scene takes several minutes. It’s detailed, it’s gruesome, and it’s in no way what the audience expected to see – not even me 50+ years later.
Things are pretty much on a downhill run to the climax from here. The victim ultimately finds a way to escape (from a high window) and is surreptitiously thrown into the Génessier family tomb at night (that place is getting a bit cluttered). Meanwhile, the face transplant, though initially showing signs of success, is ultimately rejected.
The police, who have uncovered evidence pointing at Louise, set up a sting operation and get a young girl who had been found guilty of a misdemeanor to play the bait. She nearly gets more than she had bargained for, but all the killing has finally flipped a moral switch in the daughter. She frees the intended victim, stabs Louise in the neck with a scalpel (odd, because Louise dies instantaneously without bleeding at all – I guess the special effects budget was used up), and frees her father’s experimental skin graft dogs, which turn on him and in the irony of all ironies, eat his face off.
And the daughter, wearing her creepy mask and holding a dove, wanders off into a nighttime forest. Fin.
All things considered, the movie didn’t quite live up to the hype. It was well done, but not that well done. It had one remarkable face-removal scene that stood out from other movies of its time/genre and pretty good cinematography, but outside of that, I’m not sure if the plot of the film really raises it above the level of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder. That the expert in face-grafting just happens to have a daughter who needs a face graft…it’s formulaic. I liked it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not going on the must-see list for thought-provoking films, that’s all.