Faceless (1988)

Faceless (1988) Directed by Jess Franco

Funny to think that Faceless, one of Jess Franco’s last horror films shot on film -another of the many rip-offs of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face– echoes Franco’s early horror film The Awful Dr. Orloff -another film inspired by Franju’s film- gracefully referencing everything that made his quirky filmmaking so special, the schlockmeister to end all schlockmeisters, loathed by some and cherished by others, like it or not, the evolution of European genre cinema owes much to Jess Franco’s bawdy, rapey and silly mythology of celluloid sleaze. Faceless gathers all that “mediocre perfection” that distinguished his most appreciated works. It is about an incestuous romance starring Helmut Berger and Christiane Jean, who also have a polyamorous liaison with Nathalie played by French porn idol Brigitte Lahaie as Dr. Frank Flamand’s (Helmut Berger) assistant mistress. The latter duo undertake the illicit task of kidnapping pretty, ravishing women in order to fulfill their promise to reconstruct the disfigured visage of Ingrid (Christiane Jean), Dr. Frank’s loving sister, who after a bitter altercation ended up with her face badly scorched.

The story is straight-up rhetorical exploitation, plenty of splatter, loads of violence, lots of kinky sex and a lot of nonsense; pretty much the traditional Jess Franco schtick, and to be blunt, the film actually opens with a rather awkward first act. Minutes go by and Franco squanders his directorial energies on soporific colloquy. However, once we pass the threshold of the hopelessly banal, Franco’s film morphs into a fucking monster! Faceless is one of the darkest films Jess Franco has ever ventured into, and at the twilight of his voluminous career, no less. Imagine this, you wake up in a surgical bed in a state of total immobility, you feel absolutely nothing tactile or painful due to the anesthesia but you are fully conscious and with your eyes wide open looking upward from the perpendicular line of the horizontal angle of the bed at what is happening, three doctors with a sharp scalpel gently begin to cut the contour of your face until all the skin is removed from it, all this while you are still awake. That occurs not once but two bloody times in Jess Franco’s gory flick, and it’s all so graphic – there are seldom any cutouts, it’s edited so that you can witness the surgical procedure in all its disgustingly explicit glory – so sickeningly gory that it’s downright uncomfortable at times.

However, that’s not exactly what renders the unsettling vision that Jess Franco unfolds this time in his mythological reformulation of Eyes Without a Face so uncomfortably cool, what makes it singular is the more physical and carnal handling of the concept of the objectification of beauty. Since Georges Franju’s masterpiece was released, all its knock-offs have attempted to recapture the metaphysics behind the obsessive philosophy we humans have for achieving beauty as a perfectionist ideal, but none has attempted to treat that concept from the more prosaic side of the subject, the sexual. And what better director to address that than Jess Franco. The salacious plot delves into the more psychosexual edge of the myth, and with gorgeous women and sleazy men at the behest of Franco’s idiosyncratic, leering camera, the tale is a grand – and very morbid – overview of human sexuality.

Jess Franco’s style invariably experiences lapses of random incoherence, something that after watching many of his films you eventually come to accept, but here he pushes it to a whole new level. Secondary characters come and go, have prominence and then don’t, have ephemeral relevance and then perpetual irrelevance, but still the overwhelming storytelling irrationality adds a lot. As a film developed on the basis of fragmented bits of drivel, Jess Franco succeeds in fleshing out those bits for their individual, rather than collective, strengths, and making them more meaningful. Faceless doesn’t work as a film in its entirety, but in its splintered, small patches of narrative incongruity it features some of the film’s finest set pieces – one of which is Brigitte Lahaie soliciting a male escort to have sex with a masked, timid, heterosexual sex-thirsty Ingrid. Regular Nazi character actor Anton Diffring has an excellent, major role in the film playing a former Nazi doctor, who agrees to perform the macabre facial reconstruction surgery for Dr. Frank’s sister. Helmut Berger, Brigitte Lahaie and Anton Diffring are the ultimate perverse trio, remorseless types, dedicated psychopaths and stone-cold nuts. As a contrast to the evil of these maniacs, there is private detective Sam Morgan (played by Chris Mitchum, who seems to be mimicking his father in a classy noir), hired by the father of one of the missing models abducted by the nefarious protagonists.

For the plethora of outlandish characters, for the sheer variety of grotesque, lurid affairs, and for its spine-chilling, smothering, bleak finale, Faceless has all the qualifications to be hailed as one of Franco’s most unsparing masterpieces. One of his creepiest, that’s for sure.

Matteo Bedon

Written by

Editor and Official Film Critic at CelluloidDimension.com

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