Feb 25, 2011

On DVD: Two Creepy French Films

A poetic French horror movie by Georges Franju, Eyes Without a Face (1959) is one classic film that no lover of horror should miss. You are not going to jump 13 times out of your seat. You are not going to see lots of gore and torn limbs. This movie burrows under your skin, a deeply disturbing fantasy on the destructive power of love and guilt. I don't like cheap scares like obvious music cues and gratuitous jumps. Gore bores and disgusts me. Eyes Without A Face has little of these, but it is the stuff of nightmares, and a masterpiece of atmosphere. A famous plastic surgeon (the wonderful, bone dry Pierre Brasseur) is trying to create the first successful face transplant. His daughter has lost her face in a car accident and now he wants to replace it. For that he needs another fresh, young human face. And it can't be from someone dead. So we're off to a good start. Behind all great horror movies there is a personal, human story that transcends the scares. The Shining is not about twin ghosts or rivers of blood coming from an elevator. It's about a man who hates his family. Rosemary's Baby is about the subconscious fear of having children, not about a satanic cult of adorable old geezers. Great horror stories go to the deepest recesses of our subconscious and deal with primal, heavy stuff. So here, Dr. Genessier, a tyrannical control freak who apparently provoked the accident with his arrogant driving, wants to make it up to his poor daughter Christiane, who now doesn't have a face. For that purpose, he is able to forgo his human sympathy for anybody else. He enlists, as a willing accomplice, a woman (Alida Valli) who is beholden to him because he once restored her face. She will do anything for him, including murder. And the kicker is, they are doing horrible things for love!
Franju trusts that our imagination can provide the gory details. We never really see her disfigurement (had it been made today, we'd have endless close ups of severed arteries and live nerves). Christiane has a mask, and you know how effective masks are at creeping the bejesus out of anyone. Her mask is like a mannequin's face through which we only see her big, sad eyes. It is creepy and beautiful at the same time. Still, I'm pretty sure this must have been the first time someone showed quite graphically, although thankfully in black and white, a scalpel cutting through a human face and then lifting it off. This reminded me of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a truly frightening movie. The villain in that movie did not have the luck to have Dr. Genessier as his plastic surgeon. Dr. Genessier is one of the most accurate portrayals of a doctor I've ever seen on film. He has the self-importance of someone who saves lives, is coldly professional and quite arrogant (a pre-condition for sociopathy). He looks at everyone as if they were amoebas under his microscope, but in one scene, he visits a little boy in the hospital and he is tender and caring. For some reason that I can't comprehend, his warmth in this scene makes him all the more creepy. 

The Butcher (1969) is one of Claude Chabrol's many elegant incursions into evil. In his movies, evil blooms in broad daylight, among the commonplace. Here it dwells in the bucolic French countryside, where the principal of a school, the great Stephane Audran, meets a war veteran from the French adventures in Algeria and Indochina, who is the town's butcher (Jean Yanne). The movie starts with a long wedding banquet scene that has one wondering why Chabrol is not in any rush to get his story going. You get tickets for a thriller and you are stuck in a pastorale. But soon murdered women start appearing in the woods. We kind of expect the butcher to be the killer. He has been in the war, and seems embittered and alienated, though he also could be an inoffensive schmo (albeit with a butcher knife). He's the guy that instead of bringing flowers to the schoolteacher, brings her a leg of lamb.
But you have to pay attention to the details. He talks about his father with too much contempt, and in an amazing bit of dialogue, to the townspeople in his shop that are traumatized by the murder of one girl, he counters, calmly, that he was in two wars and saw many men blown to pieces, as if one measly girl wasn't such a big deal.
There are 2 amazing set pieces in this movie. One involves a schoolgirl innocently eating a sandwich and thinking it's raining in a sunny, cloudless day, and the other one is Audran, a master at sangfroid, suddenly becoming afraid in her own house. One flick of a switch and Chabrol has you trembling with fear. 
These are the thrills I love best. Smart, rooted in reality and wicked. There is nothing scarier than human nature.

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