Okay, here’s the final entry in this year’s 31 Days of Horror.
It’s for the second movie I watched this month, so it seems kind of silly to be doing it on Halloween, but it truly deserves a post all its own. It’s a weird French masterpiece, and I can’t sing its praises highly enough.
I’d heard of this movie before, of course, and I’d heard the Billy Idol song. I’d seen the poster and even some screenshots of the creepy main character with her creepy, creepy mask. But I’d never watched it, although I’d heard how good it was. So I was taken by surprise by its elegance, pacing and atmosphere.
The plot starts with a woman, played by Alida Valli– featured in my favorite movie of all time, The Third Man, and another that’s in my top ten of all time, Suspiria— driving down a road late at night, dragging the body of a young girl out of the back of her car, and throwing the corpse into the Seine. Then we are introduced to a doctor giving a lecture about grafting living tissue from one subject to another. After the lecture, he is summoned to the police station, where the police believe they have fished the body of his daughter from the river. The corpse has similar facial injuries, you see– where the face should be, there is just an open wound. The good doctor gives confirmation that it is his daughter, Christiane.
At the funeral, he is accompanied by Alida Valli.
Back at his villa, we meet his daughter, who is heartbroken about her lack of face, and who has found her own funeral announcement. The good doctor explains that because the other girl died during the face transplant, he just identified the body as his daughter so no one would think she was alive. Since she isn’t wearing her mask– we only ever see the back of her head during this sequence– he reminds her that she needs to get into the habit of wearing the mask until he can fix her face. She mentions that they’ve removed all the mirrors, but she can still see her face in the window glass, or varnished wood, or a knife blade.
All of which brings us to minute 24 of a 90-minute movie. This film takes its time, man.
That said, at this point it all ratchets up a notch. The plot remains simple. Doctor consumed with guilt for causing his daughter’s disfigurement takes extreme measures (including kidnapping and murder) in an attempt to fix her face. Daughter, deeply depressed and teetering on the brink, deals with the reality of her mad-doctor father’s misdeeds, and attempts to balance them against her hypothetical happiness at having a functional face again. Where this movie really shines is in the beautiful pacing, performances, sets, and direction.
Edith Scob’s performance in this movie is incredible. She has to do a massive amount of emoting with just her body movements and her eyes, and she pulls it off beautifully.
That mask, by the way? John Carpenter said that it was a source of inspiration for Michael Myers’ featureless Shat-mask in Halloween.
At one point Christiane, having just witnessed her father and Alida Valli drug a girl and strap her to a hospital table, walks through the surgical room to a room full of caged animals, which her father undoubtedly (and thankfully off-camera) uses for his gruesome experiments in heterografting. The dogs don’t pity her, and they aren’t afraid of her because of the mask. They’re just thankful for the attention, and the care.
Walking back through the surgical room, she finds a mirror, removes her mask, and inspects herself. Then she walks over to the drugged girl on the table and sees her perfect face.
One of the fascinating aspects of this movie is that there isn’t really a villain– or at least, there isn’t really evil. The Doctor’s motivations are clear and sympathetic. He’s caused a horrible tragedy, and will go to great lengths to correct it, but he is not evil, just driven a little insane by the folly of his shortcomings. His assistant Louise, played by Valli, is so grateful to the doctor for fixing her face that she’s willing to follow him to the ends of the earth to accomplish what she sees as a great goal. Christiane herself is an innocent, a John Merrick-style character, pitiable, heartbreaking. She is implicit in her father’s misdeeds, certainly, by allowing him to declare her dead, and going along with his kidnapping-and-nonconsenting-surgery plots, but she’s just a teenage girl, faltering in an uncertain world.
Which brings us to the film’s end. After standing by as her father (before the movie begins) kidnapping and murdering a girl in an attempt to graft her face onto his daughter; kidnapping another girl, transplanting her face away, and then watching as she commits suicide; and finally, kidnapping a third girl, Christiane decides that she can no longer share complicity in what’s going on. When her father is called away by the police, who have been investigating, Christiane is left alone in the surgical room with the latest transplant donor. She takes decisive action. I don’t want to get too spoiler-y. But one of the things she does is release all of the caged animals her father experimented on.
Here is a huge gif. This thing is bigger than the rest of the gifs combined but I love this damn scene so much.
This movie is like Hitchcock meets Cocteau. I can’t tell you how much I like the eerie, slow, sad French horror.
As a side note, if you know me fairly well, you also know that I’m a huge poster collector nerd. So after I watched it, I ran out and found the original 1960 French one-sheet. It arrived last week, and here it is, in all its glory.