Directed by Jason Lapeyre
Executive Produced by Anna Skorzewska
Edited by Maya Maffioli
Documentary Film Review by Seamus Conlon
Ingmar Bergman claimed that the human face was the greatest subject of cinema. He would’ve probably been dismayed by the absence of it in this documentary by Jason Lapeyre, whose title, Faceless refers to the camera’s general avoidance of the faces of psychiatric inpatients, presumably to protect their anonymity. The result is a film that’s arguably much bigger on verbal rather than visual stimulation; Faceless isn’t just light on spectacle, but also on body language and facial expression. While the result isn’t cinematic, it is perhaps more successfully voyeuristic than a more traditional and invasive documentary would be – since inpatients are not confronted head-on by the camera, they are freer to display their quirks and delusions without a sense of being scrutinized. The goal of the documentary is naturalism rather than narrative. Because the film is not entangled in the weeds of trying to economically communicate the information necessary to convey a narrative, it manages to be a thing of disinterested beauty, not a grimly economical arrangement of the information necessarily to string together a story.
The documentary dwells upon and revisits the situations of various Toronto psychiatric patients over the course of the film, with the faces of the patients almost always unseen, meaning that it’s easy for the audience to have trouble identifying if they are already familiar from a previous scene with the patient they are watching. The staff members of the hospital provide the most assuring and recognizable references points, since they are always visible to the camera’s eye. We do gain a sense of familiarity via anecdote with the mental health situations of certain patients. One suffers from intense feeling of anxiety and paranoia about the autonomy of her own body, and tells the story of a fearful interaction with a stranger in which she constantly suspected (rightly or wrongly) the man’s desire to physically infringe upon her sense of sovereignty and space. On the other end of the spectrum is a woman whose manic periods seem to resemble uninterrupted divine madness – she describes an ecstatic sense of union with all, a sense being unbound by arbitrary distinctions between her self and other selves. She has an intriguing interaction with a religious staff member in which they discuss the disconnect between the secular viewpoint of most psychiatrists and the avowedly metaphysical dimension of much insanity. Perhaps the most memorable interviews are those with a woman who unhesitatingly displays her face to the camera as she describes the quasi-addiction she developed for the oblivion induced by electroconvulsive therapy.
Faceless nobly lacks a sense of time and space, of contingency. Episodes fleet before our eyes without any sense of a relationship of consequence, causality, or even necessarily of chronology governing the sequencing. The imagery is often dreamily disorienting, since the camera must be evasive to protect the facial privacy of so many of its subjects. Laypeyre’s gorgeous cinematography often peers out the window at Toronto street life, or fixating on details such as the abstract expressions paintings of xylophone playing of patients. Some might find this willful lack of clarity frustrating, but it is the positive sign of a documentary for which aesthetics matter. The solemn, worthy nature of the film’s subject matter fortunately doesn’t stop Lapeyre from painting the frames with bold, saturated colours, or from injecting decorative shots that make the most of the hospital’s spacious corridors and reflective surfaces. Faceless is certainly too word-focused to be a work of pure cinema, but the documentary nevertheless has a beauty that much kitchen-sink realism lacks.