EYES WITHOUT A FACE The best film of the year was made in 1959.

Eyes Without a Face

(Les Yeux Sans Visage)

dir. Franju

Opens Fri Jan 8

Cinema 21

Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face is twisted and freakish and, perhaps most troubling, French. It also may turn out to be one of the most wonderful and disturbing films to be released this year--an odd fact, to be sure, given that it was made in 1959 and originally took its bows in our country in 1962. In that year, with Lawrence of Arabia and The Music Man ruling the theaters, Franju's mean little picture managed to bypass the film snobs, a situation that undoubtedly had something to do with the perplexing retitling the film was given for our shores by its distributor. That title: The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. Now, though, 44 years after its debut, Franju's film has been unearthed and released under its original moniker. Eerie, frightening, and oddly beautiful, it is indeed a classic.

The story lives up to the promise held in the film's original title. A young woman named Christiane has lost her face due to a car accident. The driver at the time of the accident: Christiane's father, Professor Genessier, a well-respected specialist in transplant operations. Cold and egotistical, Professor Genessier has tossed all oaths aside and is attempting to give his daughter back a face--a worthy goal, save for the nagging problem that a replacement face needs to come from a source. And unfortunately, that source is another young woman.

Actually, it may be several young women, for the professor's methods are not as sound as he expects them to be; with the possibility that his daughter's body will reject its new face, Professor Genessier may be forced to try again and again. And with each attempt, there will of course be another body to dispose of, which is why as the film opens, the professor's secretary, Louise, is driving down a gloomy stretch of road with a body in the back seat. Her destination: a nearby lake, where the body is carelessly dumped and easily discovered by the local authorities. This apparent blunder turns into a happy twist, though, for when the faceless body is discovered, it's confused by police with the body of the professor's daughter, whom he had reported as missing following her accident. The professor's daughter is declared legally dead, and this turn of events frees Professor Genessier to continue his work without the burden of a missing daughter. Once a successful transplant is completed, an explanation for Christiane's severe alteration will become unnecessary; she'll look like someone else. Christiane will no longer be Christiane, of course, but at least she will live a life with a face.

There is a hitch in his devious plan, however, and that hitch is the very daughter he is attempting to heal; Christiane is rightly depressed by her pitiful state, and her father's easy morals in the name of science are leaving her confused and conflicted. Locked away in the family's spacious estate, Christiane hides her wretched face behind a mask when it's not buried in a pillow, and as her father continues to experiment--whether it be on dogs or unlucky ladies--suicide begins to gain favor for her over living. Christiane is a fragile and angelic creature, especially with her face hidden behind her pale mask, and a hefty portion of the wonder to be found in Eyes Without a Face is offered by long, haunting shots of the girl wandering about the family's estate. If nothing else, Franju's film serves as a handy reminder that black-and-white film can often create a mood that color cannot. Many of the images presented to us in Eyes Without a Face are startling and beautiful at the same time, and the film's power comes not from story or acting, but from intelligent direction.

Case in point: the surgery. As Professor Genessier attempts the removal of a second young woman's face, the provided footage both shocks and entices us. It is a thoroughly sterile procedure, both technically and cinematically, but the skill with which it has been shot shakes us nonetheless; first penciling a line around the victim's face, Professor Genessier then produces a scalpel and runs it along the lengthy mark and it is not until he reaches the chin that we first catch a glimpse of blood. It is an elegant stream, quickly dabbed by Louise the secretary, but its appearance is masterful; like the blood swirling about the drain in Psycho, less is far more effective in Eyes Without a Face, and watching Franju's work in the film, the fact that he only directed eight films is somewhat depressing. He appears to have been a considerable talent, and one can't help but wonder what he would have brought to the table if he'd been able to create much more.

Such ponderings are entirely useless, however, so we should all be thankful that Eyes Without a Face is here for us to experience, no matter how brief its visit. The year may be young, and there are many films yet to arrive, but as it stands now, the best film of 2004 was created in 1959.