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Thursday November 30th 2023

Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without A Face) | 1960

Les Yeux Sans Visage filming location: Barrage de Noisiel, Noisiel, France
Les Yeux Sans Visage location: Louise disposes of a body in the 'Seine': Barrage de Noisiel, River Marne, Noisiel, France | Photograph: Wikimedia / Myrabella

Maybe it was something to do with the start of an exciting new decade, but 1960 saw a slew of unexpectedly shocking works from established directors. Fiercely dismissed by critics at the time as unworthy of these artists, they’ve inevitably gone on to be regarded as classics.

Alfred Hitchcock gave us Psycho, Michael Powell his (virtually career-ending) Peeping Tom and Georges Franju Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without A Face).

Franju was assisted by a top-line array of talent. Jean Redon's novel was adapted by the writing team Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who wrote the novels which became Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955) and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).

The cinematographer was Eugen Schüfftan, who gave his name to the Schüfftan process, a forerunner to matte painting and blue screen, perfected for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

The music is by composer Maurice Jarre, who went on to such huge success with David Lean, scoring Lawrence Of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and others.

Edited down and released in the US as a schlocker under the title The Horror Chamber Of Dr Faustus, Franju’s film defies easy classification – part modern fairytale, part gross-out horror.

There’s a traditional ‘mad scientist’ set-up, as arrogant plastic surgeon Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) attempts to restore the face of his daughter Christiana (Edith Scob) which has been horrifically destroyed in a car accident. Needless to say, the doctor’s method of acquiring material for his revolutionary transplant techniques dispenses with such trivial formalities as permission. Or waiting for the potential donor to die.

The story is set around Paris and its environs where blindly loyal assistant, and former patient, Louise (Alida Valli), cruises the streets in her Citroën 2CV looking for blue-eyed, fair-haired young women who’ll suit the doctor’s needs.

Louise is first seen struggling to dispose of the no-longer-needed body of unfortunate Simone Tessot in the ‘Seine’. The spot is actually the Barrage de Noisiel, a dam on the River Marne in Noisiel, a town about 13 miles east of Paris (Noisiel Station: Paris RER line A).

The Dam stands alongside the chocolate factory which made Noisiel famous. Chocolate makers Menier built the first automated chocolate production facility in 1825, when the village had a population of about 200. The success of the business saw the company eventually building a complete town for around 2,000 employees.

The factory closed in 1993 but the building (now the French head office of Nestlé who own the company) contains a museum.

As an aside, UK readers might recognise the name. The London branch of the old Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark, south London, has been developed into an enormously successful off-West End theatre (still bearing the name).

Back in Paris, the coroners’ office, in which Dr Génessier deviously identifies Tessot’s faceless body as that of his supposedly missing daughter, is still recognisable.

It’s the Institut médico-légal de Paris on Voie Mazas, in the shadow of the Viaduc d'Austerlitz, which carries the rail line across the Seine to Gare d’Austerlitz.

The same institute is seen in two other French classics: Jules Dassin’s Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes and Clouzot's Les Diaboliques.

When Tessot is fraudulently interred as ‘Christiana’ in the Génessier family vault, the funeral takes place in the tiny cemetery of Crisenoy, on Rue des Noyers just west of the village.

The imposing tomb which dominates the cemetery is real but, as you can see, it differs slightly from the ‘Génessier vault’ seen in close up. A section of the graveyard was recreated on a soundstage at the famous Studios de Boulogne-Billancourt, Avenue Jean-Baptiste Clément, in Paris.

Louise trawls for potential face donors from the students milling about the streets around the Université Paris-Sorbonne when her attention is caught by Edna Grüber (Juliette Mayniel) exiting the Pantheon-Sorbonne on Rue Saint Jacques, between rue Cujas and rue Soufflot. That’s the tower of the prestigious university in the background.

With text books conveniently available on Amazon, the local needs of undergraduates have changed and the bookstore of Éditions Domat-Montchrestien, where Louise pretends to rummage through books, is now American Corner, 160 Rue Saint Jacques, offering bagels and hotdogs to hungry students.

Seeing Edna queuing up outside the art deco Théâtre des Champs Elysées, 15 Avenue Montaigne, 75008 Paris, Louise generously offers her a spare ticket.

Claimed to be the first example of Art Deco architecture in Paris, the theatre opened in 1913 to provide an alternative venue to the existing, more staid, institutions for contemporary music and dance.

It staked its place in history with the infamous 1913 première of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by the Ballets Russes, when the radically ground-breaking work provoked the audience to rioting. The events are recreated in in Jan Kounen's 2009 Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, starring Mads Mikkelsen and Anna Mougalis. The theatre can also be seen in Claude Pinoteau’s 1973 espionage drama Le Silencieux (Escape To Nowhere), with Lino Ventura.

After the show, Louise meets up with Edna at Le Malakoff café alongside Trocadéro Métro station on Place du Trocadéro, where she offers the student a place to stay.

The suspiciously long drive takes Louise and Edna under the striking Meudon Viaduct, a few miles southwest of the city centre, which carries the Paris to Brest railway over Avenue Jean Jaurès.

Too late, Edna finally begins to smell a rat when the ‘student room’ turns out to be in an elegant villa in the middle of a forested estate.

The doctor’s grand home is 11 rue Georges and Xavier Schlumberger, in the village of Marnes-la-Coquette, west of Paris. It’s a private home not visible from the street (though you can glimpse it on Google maps).

The film presents Génessier’s villa and clinic as being part of the same estate, but two different locations are blended together.

The clinic is Château du Haut du Bel Air, 156 rue de Versailles in Le Chesnay, a couple of miles west of the villa. It remains virtually unchanged but is now part of a modern campus of Safeguarding Childhood and Adolescence Yvelines (Special Education School).

When this transplant, like all the others, is rejected, Louise is obliged to go cruising for a new subject once more, this time at Place Paul Painlevé on the junction with rue des Écoles, just north of the Sorbonne.

The film’s finale is played out at the two locations of the Génessier estate – and the Paris studio, of course.

I am grateful to The Cine-Tourist site.