Eyes Without a Face is a film that demands to be part of every horror fan’s vocabulary. A game changer, the film helped shape the beginnings of the contemporary genre margins which started to develop from the early sixties onward. Director Georges Franju’s mingling of strange gothic poetry, menacing Freudian undertones and bare faced brutality, created classic horror cinema that not only went against the grain, but tore it up and created a new one all on its own. Tragic and fascinating it remains the focus of much analysis and discussion, even to this present day: A fact which seems quite natural when you consider the impact Edith Scob’s spell binding performance-as the masked Christiane Génessier – continues to have on audiences 55 years after the film’s initial release. Script writers, Boileau-Narcejac use Christiane’s tragic plight- her face ravaged during a car accident caused by her father- as the basis for a multi-layered plot that explores aspects of obsession, control, and cruelty, in equal measure. Placing a guilt-ridden father centre stage, next to Christiane, Docteur Génessier, (Pierre Brasseur ) , the focus then becomes his unhealthy love for an injured daughter: a love that pushes him to set about luring and killing- with the help of his lovelorn assistant Louise (Ida Valli)- young girls, and to surgically strip them of their faces in the vain hope he can restore his daughter’s lost beauty through the use of pioneering surgical techniques.
Franju evokes mood and drama through the use of stunning imagery and morose atmosphere. Graphic scenes of surgery- minus the blood, something Franju actively set out to avoid-, rub alongside more romantic, traditional gothic aspects- especially tropes typically associated with the female gothic, and its exploration of patriarchy- to make a mesmerising show. The director utilises the emotional characteristics of the central plot in lieu of violence, to produce something that ripples far deeper than immediately apparent.This BFI disc comes ripe with extra material; including a well-informed commentary by Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas, and 2014 interview material with the central star Edith Scob. There is also the generous inclusion of no less than two of Franju’s early shorts Monsieur et Madame Curie (1953) and La Premiere Nuit (1958) to consider, which both make interesting watching. While the 2014 documentary on Franju’s career Les Fleurs maladives de Georges Franju offers up some valuable insights into his world. Everything comes bundled with both high definition and standard definition prints of the main feature and the illustrated collector’s booklet delivers some valuable writing from leading experts and commentators.
Moving on, as we officially enter the last quarter, September’s releases have proven to be no less impressive so far; especially considering the latest hat-trick of sublime surrealist titles to pour forth from the doors of UK indie label Mr. Bongo. These bare bones editions might not offer much in way of bonus material (they consist simply of a main feature and a chapter menu) but they do deliver gorgeous prints of all the features involved.First to consider are two titles from the maestro of Polish surrealism, Wojciech Has: The Saragossa Manuscript ( Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie) (1965) and The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod klepsydrą) (1973).
The monochrome renderings found in The Saragossa Manuscript ( Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie) (1965) display some seriously impressive visuals to lure you into a nightmarish world that loads up on a mixture of macabre, supernatural and erotic avant garde notions. Using the frame of a story within a story, matters revolve around a manuscript found by a soldier fighting in the Napoleonic wars; who then relates the material to the audience by way of a series of separate stories that sometimes interact with one another, and jump forward and back on a central timeline of events, creating confusing results. At one point we even end up with a story, within a story, within a story; all just adding to an element of intoxication for the viewer. Whether you enjoy this effect, or not, is strictly down to how much order you expect within a narrative- The Saragossa Manuscript proving to be very much the antithesis of order; presenting as an artful chaos of sorts, albeit it very beautiful and alluring one. Within this some common themes do erupt; including dark comedy and daring eroticism. Men hang from gallows, and our central hero drinks liquor from a large skull. While women vie for his affection and display they like to keep their sisterly love in the family as they wait for the right man. The story evokes ghosts from the past, themes of possession, sex and death and razor sharp satirical wit. The film boasts the likes of David Lynch and the late, great Luis Buñuel, amongst its fans, and it is easy to see why given the surreal masterwork on offer here. With a brisk running time of 183 minutes ( incidentally this is the full Polish uncut edition- the film has previously been presented with slightly more palatable running times for US and UK audiences in the past) it’s safe to say, this will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But if you enjoy gargantuan, surreal epics with the odd bit of blood, boobs, and a horde of macabre imagery, you are in for a real treat.
The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod klepsydrą) (1973) is no less mystifying and unconventional in its weaving. This time shot in colour, this later offering from director Has, comes stamped with the same nonsensical execution to be found in The Saragossa Manuscript; the tale exploring a life once lived, as a man sits in the netherworld between life and death. Józef (Jan Nowicki) arrives at a decrepit mansion to visit his father, who is first assumed to be lying on his deathbed- a supposition Has quickly crushes when it becomes apparent this “sanatorium” actually keeps the dead lying in a timeless vortex where they sit in a limbo- for reasons not fully explained- forced to repeat old memories over and over. As Josef gets pulled into the magic at play, he too finds himself wandering around aimlessly in fragments of his own past. Through this bizarre landscape he revisits childhood memories- which include the spectacular centrepiece of a creepy mechanical wax work collection-, explores his relationship with his father, past loves, his failures, and his lost friendships. The narrative sways back and forth on the time continuum to giddying effect. The core themes again promote a strong gothic aesthetic, humour, erotic elements (this time slightly more explicit than the previously mentioned picture) and some strong aspects of Jewish culture and history. All in all, The Hourglass Sanatorium really is a fascinating and gorgeous piece of filmmaking that demands to be seen by anyone who enjoys flamboyant, sexy and dark cinema at its most visually bewitching.Talking of which, you don’t get more flamboyant than good old Fellini, and Mr Bongo follow up on the majesty of Wojech Has in spectacular fashion, with one of Fellini’s most underrated, and joyously out there classics, Fellini’s Casanova (1976). A personal favourite of mine, the film is one that has been crying out for a UK BD release for some time. Donald Sutherland plays the titular Casanova in one of his most bohemian roles to date (now aged a ripe 80 years, I am pretty sure it’s safe to say he won’t be topping it any time soon); the role sees him really get to grips with the core values of Casanova’s seductive nature, leading to some fun interpretations of lovemaking that drop typical mid-seventies graphic modes of display, in favour of burlesque artistry and a heavy dollop of tongue in cheek. Sutherland just tears it up in a role that is a perfect joy to watch; frolicking from scene to scene, Casanova’s life is explored through a series of vignettes that focus mainly on his sexual escapades; during which it seems that no female is off limits- including mechanised ones and elderly women looking for some sort of tantric experience; while later on we are treated to a jolly game of sex Olympics where the hero’s vitality is put to the test in a public feat of endurance. Fellini litters the piece with cheeky humour that is able to sit in direct contrast to some of the darker moments of the film. Stylistically the feature paints the same gloriously excessive portrait that can be found in Fellini’s dreamier works- Juliet of the Spirits (Giulietta degli spiriti) (1965), Fellini Satyricon (1969), and Roma (1972). On that note, the stunning artistry at play looks particularly impressive in high definition. In summary, all three of these latest releases from Mr Bongo, although slightly let down by a lack of extras, are a very worthwhile indulgence indeed.