Friday, October 05, 2018

The eye was in the tomb and watched Franju

Jonathan Rosenbaum showed a short film by Chloé Galibert-Laîné at a recent workshop in Paris. The film stems from a comment by Daney in a text on Franju's Eyes Without a Face. What better opportunity to translate this text. Film and translation below.

The eye was in the tomb and watched Franju 
Georges Franju, Eyes Without a Face  
For a long time, a sound has been worse than many images. A sound from Eyes Without a Face. In a night scene in a cemetery, a man in a hurry attacks the slab of a family vault with a pickaxe. His fearful accomplice wears a black raincoat and, on a neighbouring tomb, they have laid an inert body, a kind of mummy. When thrown into the finally opened vault, the body smashes with a sharp sound. This is why, until very recently, I haven’t watched again Eyes Without a Face. Because of this sound. But I always maintained that the film was superb. I saw it again: it is superb. 
The burly man in a hurry is called Genessier. A famous surgeon, the archetype of the big boss, raging mad, whose daughter has been disfigured in a car accident (he was driving, drunk). Genessier (Pierre Brasseur, more than intimidating) happens to be an allograft specialist. How can he give back a face to his daughter who is cloistered, declared dead, guarded by a hundred dogs (Edith Scob, more than intimidated)? Simple, by kidnapping young girls, operating on them at night in a secret lab, behind the garage, hoping that the skin graft will work. Meanwhile, there are dead bodies without faces to get rid of, mummies. 
We don’t talk much about ‘plastic beauty’ these days, only of ‘plastic surgery’ (Franju being a pioneer). Should we use these words again, we shouldn’t reserve them for Lumière, Feuillade or Lang, but also use them for one of their last great heirs: Franju. For I can’t imagine how one could forget the black raincoat of the professor’s accomplice-assistant-lover (?), even shinier than the eyes of Alida Valli (the actress). Similarly, I had never thought that a Citroën 2CV could have such screen presence (watch the first scene and its wonderful editing), that a Citroën DS could be parked with such a sly elegance, that a tree could seem to suffer so much, and of course that a skin mask, ‘between tweezers’ as we would say ‘between inverted commas’, could leave with regrets the face of a future mummy (the unfortunate Juliette Mayniel). Calling Franju a ‘plastic artist’ doesn’t mean that he knows how to compose images but that he films inexplicably beautiful objects. 
For a 2CV to be beautiful, it can’t just be ‘well filmed’, it needs to become ‘someone’. Franju isn’t overtly interested in his characters (well-drawn, but with a big brush) and never tries to play games with the audience. Hot cockles games don’t interest him. He prefers letting the objects become both characters and spectators. Characters since they have a role to play (the 2CV runs) and spectators since they are witness of unspeakable horrors (there’s often a dead body on the back seat of the tragic 2CV). That’s Franju’s poetic art. 
It goes a long way. The most terrifying scene of the film is not the surgery (especially for us, since bucketloads of haemoglobin have been poured on film screens), but the following one. When we finally discover the beautiful face of the real Edith Scob and that we’re made to believe that it’s someone else’s skin, we understand why any true beauty is always ambiguous in films. Challenged to choose between the ‘how does it work’ of realism and the ‘it’s as if’ of fiction, we will always let the objects choose for us. With Franju, since Blood of the Beasts, any beauty originates by facing horror, hence its muffled radiance, its ironic calm. 
If it’s true (as we keep saying, as loud as we can) that a film is worthless unless it invents its own time, Eyes Without a Face unfolds with a calm we are no longer accustomed to. As if, from a dead body to another, the action only accelerated a little, just a bit. As if, for us as for the characters, there was no need to get agitated since the 2CV, the raincoat, the kennel of test dogs, the scalpels, were ready, with a desperate calm, to get going again, in-between two failed graft. If there is an emotion in this film, it comes from this implacable melange of awkwardness and routine. Genessier is a monster, maybe, but he isn’t cut out to break into a tomb at night, just as Valli isn’t meant to solicit young girls in the cafés of the Latin Quarter. These sleepwalkers continue – realism oblige – to carry their weight of humanity. 
P.S. In the end, the sound from the breaking of the bones of the disfigured mummy isn’t that terrifying. I was less scared and it allowed me to rediscover the scene in which I found a shot that I had forgotten, an incredible shot which one shouldn’t look for at the bottom of the vault but in the nocturnal sky where Franju – for no apparent reason – shows a passing plane. Protective model, witness-object, pure poetry. 
First published in Libération on 25 September 1986. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde 3. Les années Libé 1986-1991, POL, 2012, pp.145-7. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

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