Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Face, Off

Mirror, mirror... Eyes Without A Face, Face of Another and Seconds

With its themes of identity, change, disfigurement, beauty, appearance and superficiality, films about plastic surgery (and obviously, Hollywood is a place where every actor has it done) can make for visual, complex and captivating cinema which explores both the physical and psychological aspects of the process.

Even before plastic surgery was commonplace, films were made about the subject. The Raven from 1935 stars Karloff and Lugosi in an adaptation of Poe's poem. The Face Behind the Mask (1941) stars Peter Lorre as a man facially deformed in an accident who eventually saves up enough money to have a realistic mask created for himself. Dark Passage, 1947, starts Bogart and Bacall. More recently there's been Cronenberg's Rabid (1977) and John Woo's Face/Off (1997). And if we are to take the etymology of plastic surgery from its Greek origins, meaning 'the art of modelling malleable flesh', then there's the revolting Human Centipede films.

Pedro Almodovar's latest film, The Skin I Live In, features Antonio Banderas as a plastic surgeon. Its poster is reminiscent of Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage), made in 1960. At a time when most films were shot in colour, Franju's French masterpiece was made in black and white (as both Hitchcock's Psycho and Wilder's The Apartment were also, in the same year). An unsettling, horrific, yet often poetical and surreal film, Eyes Without a Face concerns a doctor attempting to reconstruct his daughter Christiane's (Edith Scob) disfigured face. He does this by kidnapping young, beautiful women and grafting their skin onto his daughter's. Gross-out scenes include a graphic depiction of a woman having her face removed; poetical scenes include Christiane walking silently around her empty house wearing her blank ghostlike mask, as she does for much of the film. And the justly famous, final shot of Christiane walking away from the house, releasing her father's dogs with the freed white doves flying around her.

Two more notable black and white plastic surgery films from the 1960s are Face of Another (Tanin No Kao) and Seconds, both made in 1966.

Face of Another pairs writer Kobo Abe and director Hiroshi Teshigahara together once again, after they made the extraordinary Woman of the Dunes several years previously. It features a Japanese businessman who receives a lifelike mask after being facially scarred in a fire. The mask gradually changes the man's personality and his wife eventually leaves him.

On paper, Seconds looked like it was going to be a great success. Directed by John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate), photographed by James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success) and starring Rock Hudson, it flopped during its initial release but has since become a cult film. The opening credits (created by Saul Bass, who also designed the – unused – poster, above right) give an indication of what's to come, with a human eye filmed in close-up by a distorted lens (looking like Repulsion's title sequence for a second) to give an unsettling, paranoid feel. The film has the bored, frustrated and middle-aged businessman Arthur Hamilton contacted by a mysterious agency, 'The company', to create a new identity for him. This involves faking the death of his old self and with the help of plastic surgery, giving him a new one, in the form of Tony Wilson, played by Rock Hudson. Wilson tries to adapt to his life as a handsome artist on Malibu beach, a life not all that bad really, but finds something lacking and feels an emptiness inside.

Eyes Without A Face, Face of Another and Seconds form a trilogy of sorts. All are highly stylised, filmed in stark black and white and often alternatively beautiful and frightening. All are thematically rich, exploring ideas about identity, society and image. All have depressing endings. As a general rule, films about plastic surgery tend not to end happily.

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