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Cosmic Possibility & Utter Weirdness: Revisiting Georges Franju
The Quietus , November 15th, 2013 12:16

With French director Georges' Franju's horror masterpiece Eyes Without A Face being screened at the BFI tomorrow night, Michael Wojtas explains why his films deserve to be seen as classics

Informed by the past yet still strikingly modern, the films of Georges Franju seem to exist outside of any era or movement. Yet today, it's difficult to imagine the name of this undervalued auteur being uttered outside of certain small circles of cinephiles. When Franju is spoken of, it's typically in connection with the 1960 enigma Eyes Without A Face, his sole film that's been canonized, minutely analyzed, Criterion Collection-ed. Though released less than six months after The 400 Blows and about a year before Breathless, this singular horror masterpiece about a face transplant gone as bad as it could conceivably go isn't often mentioned with regard to the French New Wave. This probably owes to the fact that Franju's touch is all nuance, no flash. Plus, while the Nouvelle Vague elite mined old Hollywood gangster flicks for inspiration, Franju had his head stuck in the darkly trippy days of German Expressionist trickery. Which isn't to say that Franju was a revivalist. It's perhaps more accurate to think of him as having used silent horror aesthetics as a launch pad into a realm of cosmic possibility and utter weirdness; it may just be one of cinema's glaring injustices that the director's reputation isn't on an equal footing with French film's great Jeans of dreamy surrealism, Cocteau, Genet and Vigo.

Eyes's daring mix of outlandish concept and old-fashioned craftsmanship virtually secured its reputation as a left-field horror favorite, but Franju kept up this tricky balance throughout his filmography, which is littered with lesser-known works screaming for resurrection. Of the Franju films begging for resurgence, Head Against the Wall (1959) and Judex (1963) shine brightest. The former charts the downfall of Francois (Jean-Pierre Mocky, a sort of French James Dean), a rebel youth committed to a Kafkaesque mental institution by his own father. The later is a remake of a 1916 adventure flick about a trench-coated avenger hero with the dark panache of the best villains. In Franju's hands, it becomes a ludicrously elegant pulp pageant. Really, how could it be that two such films, with all the makings of cult classics (one playing like Shock Corridor-meets-Rebel Without A Cause, the other akin to an arthouse Batman flick), have no cults to speak of?

Yet as enticingly eccentric as their subject matter and protagonists may be, the primary draw of these films remains, as with Eyes, Franju's style. He first worked as an avant-garde documentarian, and his early non-fiction could be seen as a front-runner to Werner Herzog's psychedelic, sci-fi slanted docs. Franju would go on to cast his eye for the deliriously unreal at genres, treating each style he encountered as pliant space for shaping dreams and nightmares. Throughout his career, his signature would always be the inventiveness he employed while reimagining reality as an expressive ballet of light and shadow.

Consider the opening sequence of Head, which alone is enough to qualify it as a neglected pearl of sorts. The film begins with a figure melting into his motorcycle, cascading through a bucolic hillside setting. The sequence recalls Herzog's brilliant skiing doc The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, as the motorcyclist is engulfed by his surroundings to the point of abstraction, beckoned into the shadowy voids of billowing grasslands. The cyclist, soon to be revealed as Francois, dismounts his bike with jeans cuffed and pompadour extended toward the heavens. His outer shell may bring to mind romanticised American rebels and British working class anti-heroes of the era, but kitchen sink realism or suburban malaise this is not. Francois is more of a comatose young man than an angry one, his ever-vacant eyes and sleepily rigid movements suggesting a constant state of sleepwalking as he is continually absorbed by the film's negative space.

But Franju was just as at ease using classic light and darkness metaphors to draw on emotions as he was revising their symbolism. Francois stumbles into a church, where the face of a choirgirl (Eyes star Edith Scob, in all her alien beauty) is awash in luminous, crystalline textures. Conversely, a searing flashlight is the tool a dispassionate psychiatrist uses to violently peer into the face of Francois, as if he's trying to locate and extract whatever spirit might remain within his patient. In most of Franju's films, it's in plain sight, in respectable, sterile drawing rooms and offices, where the most calculatedly evil decisions are made. Likewise, escapism and alluring mystery are often drawn out of enveloping darkness. Characters are regularly subsumed by the inky recesses of woodland nights, which take on a warm sensuality rarely seen outside of Lynchian worlds. And, inverting the tradition of classic horror, Franju keeps his hero in the black corners of his compositions (or entirely off the screen) for large portions of Judex.

Franju, like Cocteau or even Orson Welles, was a director as conjuror, and the tricks he dealt in could have come straight from the pioneering silent era. But they're used to astonish us just as often as they become tools for examining our most visceral fears; in one of Head's most notable sequences, the violent seizure of a deeply troubled inmate is shown in reverse motion to produce a jarring, disassociating instance. Franju applied his slippery magic to Head to illustrate the mystifying ways external forces can control a person's interior life, but Judex is cinematic sleight-of-hand as pure fantasy. Like Francois, Judex (played by actual magician Channing Pollock) is a shadow dweller, but one who has turned his foreignness to an advantage, constantly manipulating reality, responding to a grimly unfulfilling world by always remaining a few steps ahead of it. The title hero's most valiant feat: floating into a mesmerising setpiece wearing the most dandified bird mask known to cinema, bringing the attendees of a stuffy costume ball to an awe-inspired halt.

Befitting the caped-crusaders and femme fatales formula of Judex, the film's primary characters are deliciously uncomplicated, their ability to grapple control from one another directly proportionate to their capacity for commanding the viewer's attention. Witness as the film's dark-hearted siren Diana (a perfectly witchy Francine Bergé) momentarily ensnares Judex, only to be foiled by Daisy (Sylva Koscina), an acrobat who simply takes a vertical stroll up a building's façade and into the criminal's lair.

Yet it's a casualty of systematic cruelty - Scob as a tragic waif who's all but lobotomised by the abuses of those around her - that gives Judex its heart, and keeps the film out of the realm of soulless pop spectacle. When Franju unexpectedly reveals that an imposing guard dog has stopped to drape a concerned paw over his collapsed master Scob rather than pursue her attackers, it is architected as gut-punch poignancy on a par with any heart-rending moment of disfigurement and death in Eyes. And in other hands, Head could have been an exercise in exploitation, of both the juvenile delinquency and gawk-at-the-psychos varieties. But, like auteurs overseas such as Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, Franju had an empathetic streak for the oppressed, which helped transform potentially lowbrow source material into unusually expressive filmmaking. Always an outlier himself, never having quite found an enduring audience or critical niche, Franju's humanist leanings tended to show in his characterisation of outsiders -- those crushed under the impossible weight of daily banality, frozen into catatonic states by the callousness of the world.

That such unlikely characters could all fathomably inhabit the same strange cinematic universe is a credit to Franju's incomparable vision, as each individual frame of these films feels like a passionately crafted dreamscape worthy of rediscovery.

Georges Franju's Eyes Without A Face is screened tomorrow, Saturday 16th November, at the BFI Southbank. For more information click here to visit the BFI website.