Thursday, December 18, 2008

New Wave face transplant

You've probably seen the news about the woman who received America's first face transplant. Interestingly enough, the idea of a face transplant has been the subject of a classic movie, and not one of those bad-but-fun Hollywood B-movies of the 1950s. Instead, it's the 1960 French classic Eyes Without a Face (French title Les yeux sans visage).

Pierre Brasseur plays Dr. GĂ©nessier, a doctor renowned in the new field of reconstructive surgery. It turns out that he's got more than a professional interest in the subject: his daughter was in a car accident that left her disfigured, and in need of serious surgery on her face. But, we're getting ahead of ourselves. The movie actually starts with the dumping of a body in a river, which Dr. GĂ©nessier identifies as his daughter. He does this in order to reveal the truth of what's actually going on, which is that he's trying to perform radical facial reconstruction surgery on his daughter, albeit without success.

The doctor's daughter has been left with a face she can't show to anybody -- even herself -- and either lies in bed covering her face, or wears a frightening, featureless mask to cover it up. Meanwhile, we learn that the not-so-good doctor and his assistant (played by Alida Valli), are conspiring to kidnap young women and surgically remove their faces to graft on to the daughter's.

It's horrifying stuff, and what makes Eyes Without a Face such a good movie is the fact that it's not handled the way that most American movies would have handled it. It's less a horror movie than it is a suspense movie, with the characters having believable motivations, albeit motivations warped by their sense of hubris, self-righteousness, or loyalty, as the case may be. It's also got gorgeous photography, one of the many movies helped by being in black and white instead of color. Thankfully, it's also available on DVD.

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