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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Last Time Ever I Saw Your Face
by Donald Levit

For ghoulish Horror Mother’s Day and Father’s Day the Museum of the Moving Image offered Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby and The Brood on the May Sunday former, The Night of the Hunter, Eyes Without a Face and The Shining the June Sunday latter. Often billed under original title Les yeux sans visage, occasionally misleadingly aka’d with pure box-office bait as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, the 1960 French Eyes Without a Face is the least generally celebrated of the six, Léos Carax’s Holy Motors in-joke mask and actress not registering here and Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In debt to it not recognized, either.

In sinister evening and interior b&w, contrary to legend the 35mm print does not include the auto accident in which, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) at the wheel, daughter Christiane’s (Edith Scob) face was disgustingly disfigured. Nor, though this is American-advertised as a horror film, does that scarred visage appear apart from a few fuzzed frames.

Like this eighty-eight minutes but even shorter, Val Lewton’s first such genre production, the 1942 b&w Cat People, is not aimed at frightening and depends on what is not seen, something shock terror movies have yet to learn. This includes Kubrick’s over-esteemed shiny two-hours-and-a-quarter at the Overlook Hotel, with its corridors of blood, naked poxed crone in Room 237, much over-acting, and child Danny speaking in a gruff adult voice à la Regan.

On the other hand, effective screen evil, or satanic pride-arrogance, is disturbing, as in the above Tourneur or this one from Georges Franju, director-co-writer (with the team that did the book behind Vertigo) from a novel by Jean Redon.

Lethargic, depressed, suicidal, Christiane is a virtual prisoner in father’s chateau on the isolated hospital grounds above a kennel of dogs for vivisection, caged doves, and the operating room where he removes faces from beautiful students lured from the Latin Quarter by assistant Louise (Alida Valli). In a significant wide pearl choker, the latter is not so stone cold as he although except for her eyes registering no repulsion or protest. Her attractive face, too, has been rebuilt by the doctor, though the labor was not so intense, or personal. Less the deranged scientist of pulp fiction and movies than a father who loves his daughter but is aloof, controlling -- of her, Louise, and who knows how many chloroformed young women -- and as much motivated by feelings of guilt about the accident.

Inspector Parot (Alexandre Rignault) and his gendarmerie are not Clouseau bumbling but, despite a tip from Christiane’s bereaved doctor fiancé Jacques (François Guérin), inefficient enough even to lose track of the decoy (Paulette, played by Béatrice Altariba) they themselves have planted.

In high-collared Givenchy dressing gown and an expressionless lifelike mask somewhat like that of Claude Rains’s Phantom but held on by eyeglass temples, it is Christiane who spooks the viewer, serene and silent, observing but not in control of her own life or situation, begging for death but, denied that for the moment at least, resolving things through a grisly death that disfigures another’s face. White against black, sans mask but photographed from the back, she balances the last white dove of peace.

Maurice Jarre’s effective, lightly jazzy score is not the standard stuff of fright movies. But then, this is not a scary one, nothing jumps out to make you jump despite expecting it. This classic is poetic, disturbing, appalling, as Emily Dickinson saucily spoke of the undertaker, the “man of the appalling trade.”

(Released by Criterion Collection; not rated by MPAA.)

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