Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Memory of a Face

These were the notes for another double bill which we showed some time ago (I remember it was cold). A few further thoughts follow on.

THE FACE OF ANOTHER (TANIN NO KAO) – Hiroshi Teshigahara 1966

An ethereal figure robed in a white gown glides from the sepulchral corridors catacombing a chill French mansion to emerge into a night garden, savage hounds tamed at the touch of her hands, her wide eyes staring through the holes of an impassive mask as doves flutter up from the cages she opens to disappear into the surrounding darkness.
A lab-coated doctor and his mutely recriminating assistant, contemplating the metaphysical implications of their surgical experiments in recasting the face and thereby the personality of a desperate, disfigured patient, circle a laboratory resembling a Blue Peter set designed by Rene Magritte whilst a spectral female form, black hair wavering like waterweeds in invisible oceanic currents, floats past behind an open door which is framed by no wall.
Images which burn themselves into your subconscious and lead you to question whether you have drifted into some vivid dreamlike state. The above scenes may indeed be projected memories transformed in my private cinema of the imagination. Both you and I will have to watch to find out. Teshigahara and Franju, in their peculiarly Japanese and French ways, create surrealist poetry out of the collision of the everyday and the fantastic. In some ways they toy with the conventions of the horror genre, in others they wholly embrace them. Both films feature Frankensteinian doctors who, in the traditional manner, assume the godlike power to use whatever means necessary to achieve their ends. Both feature women whose scarred features ostracize them from a society whose values are skin-deep. In their concentration on the face, the most expressive part of the human body, these amazing films viscerally explore the nature of personality. If you have the face of another, will your character remain unchanged by the way people react to it? If the gaze reflected back at you in the mirror is from eyes without a face, are you doomed to remain a ghost haunting empty corridors. Are we nothing beyond the masks with which we confront the world? Music lovers will enjoy the scores by Toru Takemitsu and Maurice Jarre. Teshigahara went on to run the Ikebana, or Japanese flower-arranging, school originally set up by his father. What fascinating arrays of exotic blooms he must have created.

Afterthoughts: These notes were written some time after having seen the films, as their rather poetic vagueness might indicate. Some considerable time in the case of Yeux Sans Visage, which I remembered from a crackly print shown in the long since defunct Scala Cinema in Kings Cross, with its rather cavernous sound and immense dilapidated charm. It was interesting upon seeing the films again to note how memory had subtly altered and recast certain scenes, and how a second viewing had brought certain elements previously disregarded into clearer focus.

The music in Yeux Sans Visage immediately struck me. A haunted fairground waltz which wouldn’t be out of place in a Tim Burton film, or indeed in the haunted fairground of Carnival of Souls. The electronic shimmer of the hammond organ at the end of each phrase is the perfect aural accompaniement to the sweep of the 2CV’s headlights as they throw their cold illumination over the nightime country roads or cobbled Parisian streets. Toru Takemitsu’s score for Face of Another moves from modernist musique concrete to pastiche German cabaret music. Indeed Toru Takemitsu (and apparently the writer Kobo Abe, whom I didn’t recognise) can be seen merrily chatting away in the background in the bizarre setting of this ersatz German bierkellar – the kind of cultural replication which the Japanese seem able to make somehow more authentic than the original.

As for the films themselves, I was certainly not remiss in my recollection of peeking through narrowed and occasionally averted eyes at the surgical scene of Yeux Sans Visage, an experience I replicated on this viewing. As much as the physical removal of the face, it’s the effortful tension on Pierre Brasseur’s face, the sweat beading his forehead, which makes the operation, carried out in agonising, prolonged silence, so harrowing. The stills sequence which documents the progressive failure of Edith Scob’s face graft in a clinical series of photographs is particularly upsetting. Her face begins with a hint of a hopeful smile, contrasting markedly with the impassive set of her mask, before shifting through a deteriorating metamorphosis into a scarred, sagging look of downcast despair.

The complicity of Edith Scob’s character was something which startled me. When the final intended victim wakes up in the operating room, she is there patiently waiting on the sofa, as she presumably has on previous occasions. In this way she is co-opted into the schemes and kept under the controlling power of her monstrous father as much as Alida Valli’s cold companion in crime. These three form a twisted portrait of the respectable French family, bound in a suffocatingly destructive net of obligations and unspoken loyalties. The maze-like corridors and subterranean passages of their suburban chateau are a trap, a prison – much as the Overlook Hotel is for the Torrance family in The Shining. Edith Scob eventually rebels and breaks out, setting the dogs on her father and drifting into the night woods like a floating spectre. The animal symbolism here, the protective hounds and released doves, is carried through from and to other Franju films. Edith Scob is once more guarded by savage dogs in Judex, who threaten to tear apart all who would do her harm. The Birmingham group Pram pay homage to this finale in the video to their recent single Beluga, which also gives a nod to The Avengers and the visual style which it partly inherited from Judex.

Hiroshi Teshigahara was one of my great discoveries from the late-lamented rental shop Brazil, run with unfailing taste and erudition by my esteemed fellow blogger Neil. I’d seen his best known work Woman of the Dunes, but nothing more. Face of Another, together with Pitfall, comprise a series of remarkable collaborations with writer Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu. You can read more about Takemitsu’s contribution in David Toop’s excellent musical volume Haunted Weather. Face of Another is an exemplary modernist film. Its action unfolds against the concrete and glass of modern architecture which has either been recently built or is under construction. This covering over of the scars of war with a hastily erected vision of a new world is reminiscent of the Rome and London of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse and Blow Up. The clinic in which the rarely named Mr Okuyama receives his mask is a surreally antiseptic environment in which human features are rendered disembodied and alien.

The narrative fractures in a modernist style too. This occurs after the increasingly hostile Mr Okuyama has interrogated his wife about her visit to the cinema. The sudden shift to a wide screen ratio and into a completely disconnected narrative with a new set of characters place this as a film-within-a-film, possibly playing inside Mrs Okuyama’s head. I found this part of the film much more engaging second time around. The settings are more noticeably run-down and low-lying than the high-rise cityscapes and neat suburbs of Mr Okuyama’s world. The hospital where the mentally scarred war veterans go through their daily routines and act out their mad dramas is a concrete shell, an urban dumping ground where they have been shut away and forgotten. The girl who visits them is disfigured on one side of her face by a scar which could be a radiation burn or a relic of the fire-bombing of Tokyo. The girl’s affinity for these lost old men suggests a common grounding in the lingering traumas of a war which the rest of a rapidly developing Japan would prefer to bury. But the girl is rejected in the hospital, as she has been by the children in the streets, her kindnesses taken advantage of and abused due to her damaged face. Eventually, she is left with only her brother for comfort, perhaps representing the communion with the world which she is unable to find. After a night together in a beach house, she wonders out into the sea. Her brother witnesses this suicide through the window and his cry of anguish coincides with the explosion of the sky into a flash of atomic brilliance. The brother’s melodramatic prostration before the window is immediately undermined as his splayed figure is replaced by the similarly arrayed image of cooked chicken (spatchcocked is, I believe, the culinary term). It is a moment of startling surrealist dislocation worthy of the Bunuel of Un Chien Andalou or L’Age D’Or.

The scene which I recollected in the original notes above was somewhat expanded by my inner eye, which perhaps underlines the strange subliminal effect it exerts. The reedy wash of dark tresses recalls the use of long black concealing hair in recent Japanese horror films such as Ring and Audition, as well as its terrible disembodied animation in the first story of Kwaidan, the painterly anthology of the supernatural from 1964. This is a motif which evidently has a powerful subconscious resonance for the Japanese, for whom a lustrous length of black hair is a mark of beauty.

The laboratory or clinic is very much an interior landscape. It is very unlikely that any doctor or scientist would decorate their surgery in such a fashion. Its lack of windows or an identifiable physical location suggests that we are really placed inside Mr Okuyama’s head, just as the other narrative unfolded on Mrs Okuyama’s inner screen. The objects on the shelves, the etched outline of the human form on the glass wall, the chair which is a giant hand are all the symbol-charged props of the subconscious, the integuments of the dreaming mind. Thus, as the brother can be seen as the other half of a divided self in the film-within-a-film, so the doctor is the cajolling Hyde aspect of the repressed self. He is also a Frankenstein figure, coaxing his creation into existence and attempting to regulate its development. The final scenes are very striking, with Mr Okuyama the only ‘face’ in a crowd of literally featureless office workers against whose tide he struggles. I would be very interested to read Kobo Abe’s novel upon which the film is based.

Pitfall, the other film (aside from Woman of the Dunes) in the Teshigahara/Abe/Takemitsu ‘trilogy’ is also an interesting excursion into the fantastic, this time mixing ghost story and political allegory. It would make a good half of a future double bill, perhaps with the Hammer film Plague of Zombies, another film which mixes supernatural elements with a tale of the exploitation of a mining community. This time in Cornwall, though.

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