Last night I rang in the glorious Halloween season by watching the 1966 film The Face of Another, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s adaptation of the Kobo Abe novel. This is the story of a man who suffers terrible burns all over his face in an industrial accident, who gets the chance to wear a hyper-realistic mask of someone else’s face, crafted by a mad scientist. His story is interwoven with the even sadder and creepier story of a young woman with burns on only one half of her face, who tries to live with her condition even as the main character is seeking to escape his.
This is a really intensely directed movie. There are startling and troubling images in almost every scene. Teshigahara manages to wring horror from a shot of a pretty woman’s legs descending a staircase, as we see the sheer stockings wrinkle slightly around her ankles as if her skin is coming off. There are scary labs with giant body parts on the walls and other strange interior-decorating choices, and shots which show faces at strange angles, as when the burned man and his wife are shown in a postcoital upside-down shot; or the moment in which the scientist’s face appears just beside his patient’s, tilted at about a twenty-degree angle. The music is also aggressive and well-used, including German torch songs (this is a very postwar movie) and what I think is a waltz which serves as a recurring theme.
Really the whole movie is shivery, and unnecessarily intelligent. Some of the bubbitzing about the meaning of masks is shallow, but some of it is unexpectedly great, like the burned man’s wife’s sharp little discourse about whether women wear makeup because they’re worse than men or because they’re better. The wife is a “still waters run deep” character in general, which I like a lot. The discussion of what we would be like in a faceless world, how our human loneliness would change, is bizarrely reminiscent of debates about the anonymity and/or pseudonymity of the Internet, where famously nobody knows if you’re a dog.
The final “twist” is not exactly a surprise, but I don’t care, because spending two hours in this movie’s creepy world was a terrific and intense experience.