Syllabus: Facial Transplant Movies

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12/07/2010 2:54 PM |


In Syllabus, we assemble a list of necessary (and less than necessary) viewing on the subject of a particular topic. Lists!

Today, Film Forum‘s retrospective of the great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu continues with Hiroshi Teshigahara’s classic existential-mod Kobo Abe adaptation The Face of Another, in which a disfigured salaryman undergoes elaborate reconstructive surgery, comes out looking like Tatsuya Nakadai, and sets out to seduce his wife.

Aside from offering the opportunity for intensely ingenious genre-film set-ups, the facial-transplant genre is freighted with some heavy symbolic weight: issues of assumed identity and role-playing reflect back on the nature of cinema itself, and raise questions about performance’s relationship to identity. There’s an almost Buddhist element to these movies, which consider the continuity—or compromise—of a human consciousness as it’s all but reincarnated in another form. Like so:

Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
The same year as The Face of Another, and similar in its treatment of facial transplant as a false dawn: middle-aged dude fakes his own death, undergoes extensive surgery, becomes Rock Hudson. A second chance at life—or, as the question always goes, is it? The Saul Bass opening titles, a montage of distorted extreme close-ups, are uncannily disorienting and also totally dope:

Face/Off (John Woo, 1997)
“The Kane of experimental face-swapping surgery movies, the L’s Justin Stewart wrote this summer, when IFC Center saluted Nicolas Cage: “Woo and leads Cage and John Travolta having an indecent amount of fun with the ironic and Freudian possibilities that their plot device opens up… As good cop Sean Archer in terrorist Castor Troy’s body, Cage ‘pretends’ to enjoy snorting coke and grabbing ass at the Troy safehouse. His tears and wild-eyed inner torture are hilariously overdone, but also convincing—textbook Nic, and evidence in 1997 that ‘going mainstream’ was going to have little to no effect on Cage’s tacit understanding with his own insane actorly muse.”

Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)


A seminal moment in the history of the horror movie, as the revelatory and freaky disassociation of external features from interior presence set the stage for generations of creepy masks. But the masked girl (played by Edith Scob!) awaiting a facial transplant from her mad-scientist father is also, as the L’s Cullen Gallagher has observed, “robbed of her identity and forbidden to leave the house, seem[ingly] almost an adolescent allegory…”

Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, 1947)
Bacall loves man-on-the-run Bogie in both his guises, in this David Goodis adaptation.

Strange Impersonation (Anthony Mann, 1946)
With thanks to the L’s Benjamin Mercer, who flagged this ” totally preposterous and engrossing plastic-surgery thriller” over the summer, and made some initial notes towards a canon of face-transplant and face-swapping movies.

A tentative theory Ben and I came up with is that facial-transplant movies are a substratum of movies about the mind-body problem, along with your body-swap plots (like Freaky Friday or that Buffy two-parter where Buffy and Faith switch bodies) (crazy fanfic out of that one, as I’m sure you can imagine), your amnesia movies, your Cartesian sci-fi flicks like The Matrix, or Avatar.

Or take a movie with a comparatively minor plastic surgery plotline, like Tamara Drewe, starring Gemma Arterton as a city girl who returns to her hometown with a sexy new nosejob. The film—which is delightful, by the way—concerns people trying to hold on to their way of life, or their longstanding romantic arrangements, and maybe the big change in Tamara’s life isn’t rhinoplasty but rather the passage of time, and the alteration of people and places once thought comfortably static. Facial-transplant and facial-swap movies test out identity, worrying over the extent to which it can really be considered a phenomenon distinct from corporeal fact.

One Comment

  • one of my favorite face transplant movies in Ed Wood’s “Jail Bait”…definitely Ed Wood’s best screenplay, in a non-“WTF!?” way. Also, “Batman,” at least the “gimme a mirror!” scene, springs to mind. Speaking of Batman, Two Face seems apropos to this discussion.