(1959) Directed by Georges Franju; Written by Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac and Claude Sautet; Based on the novel by Jean Redon; Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Alida Valli and Juliette Mayniel; Available on DVD
“The fantastic is created, but the bizarre is revealed.” – Georges Franju
Eyes Without a Face is a rare horror gem that balances style with substance. Its influence on other genre films* (not to mention a song with the same title by Billy Idol) is incalculable, with a combination of artful horror and gore-infused thrills. Oddly enough, the film’s director/co-writer Georges Franju would have likely argued that this was not a horror film, but something else entirely. Franju was fascinated with finding the disturbing out of the ordinary, rather than creating an artificial construct that had no basis in reality.
* One notable recent example would be Pedro Almodóvar’s excellent movie, The Skin I Live In.
The opening scene sets a mysterious tone, with a woman disposing a body in a river. We soon learn that she’s a (reluctantly) willing accomplice to the gifted surgeon Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) and his unsavory plans. Louise (Alida Valli) is beholden to him for repairing her damaged face, and does his bidding out of gratitude – or is it something else? Although it’s never explored onscreen, their relationship seems to be more than professional.
In a 1982 interview, Franju commented that, “…a character is much scarier if he seems to be normal but acts abnormally.” Génessier is not a mad scientist, as he would be portrayed in a lesser film, but a man faced with performing unthinkable acts for the sake of his daughter. His actions, as a result, seem more horrific because he appears to be a reasonable man. After his daughter’s face is destroyed in an automobile accident (one that was caused by his own negligence), he searches for a way to restore her to her original beauty. Stricken with guilt, he doesn’t pause to consider the ethical ramifications of attempting to secure a new face for his daughter. He stays one step ahead of the police, shrouded by a veneer of respectability, as he and Louise abduct young women to be unwitting donors for his experiments. Génessier tries to rationalize that the means justify the end, but his intentions are ultimately selfish. Maintaining control is a vital aspect of his personality. He implores his daughter to keep her mask on to conceal her appearance, while perpetuating the lie that she died in the car accident. This, of course, leaves him free to covertly proceed with his nefarious medical endeavors.
Eyes Without a Face owes much of its power to the remarkable performance by Edith Scob as Dr. Génessier’s waiflike daughter Christiane. Scob conveys an almost angelic presence as she floats from room to room. Franju is careful to conceal her face from the audience for most of the film’s running time. Only her eyes are visible behind an expressionless mask, conveying a profound sadness that’s impossible to quell. She’s burdened by the deeds of her father, and repulsed by her complicity in his schemes. In one scene she comments that she wishes she had been left blind, as her eyes remained intact to gaze on her ruined visage.
The makeup effects by Georges Klein are still unsettling today. It’s easy to imagine how audiences must have squirmed in their seats as they witnessed the film’s most infamous scene, when Dr. Génessier removed the face of one his victims with clinical precision. In contrast to the explicit gory detail of Génessier’s medical procedure, we only catch a fleeting glimpse of Christiane’s face behind the mask. Instead of lingering on her distorted facial features, we are left to empathize with her condition.
The wonderful, lively score by Maurice Jarre also deserves special mention. It provides a sporadically ironic counterpoint to the grim proceedings, perfectly skirting the line between the playful and the macabre, like a Charles Addams cartoon.
In 1962, Eyes Without a Face was edited and dubbed into English, and slapped with the lurid title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. It suffered the added indignity of being placed on a double bill with the schlocky (but fun) The Manster, and thrust on an unsuspecting American audience. Thankfully, the original, unadulterated French language version is now available, for all to enjoy. While Franju was reluctant to describe his movie as horror, most viewers would probably beg to differ. At its heart, Eyes Without a Face is a sad tale about trying to recapture what has been lost. It’s at once strangely beautiful, eerily captivating, and surprisingly moving.