Imagine a beautiful dream of lyrical black-and-white images, of a lonely young woman, flitting through her home like a silent spectre, calling her fiance on the phone to listen to his voice but not speaking herself – because that would reveal she is still alive, when the world thinks her dead. Her home is also her prison. Her face, hidden behind a mask that makes her resemble a mannequin, is a ruined mess, the result of an automobile accident. Her father is a brilliant surgeon who has faked her death and is trying to restore her beauty – a process that involves kidnapping look-alike victims and transplanting their faces onto hers. When you see the operation in full view of the unblinking camera, you realize that your dream has erupted into a nightmare whose shock derives from the way the graphic imagery violates the poetic beauty of the rest of the film.
This is the brilliant strategy used by director Georges Franju in EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les Yeux sans Visage), a compelling and clinically brilliant combination of French art film and shock horror. The plot reads like little more than conventional B-movie schlock: Doctor Genessier, driven by guilt (for he was driving the car during the accident that disfigured his daughter), is the archetypal mad scientist who will stop at nothing to see his scheme succeed. His is aided and abetted by his faithful servant, in this case a beautiful nurse, Louise (Alida Valli), rather than a deformed hunchback. Beautiful young women are kidnapped to be used as fodder for his experiments, but their faces bring only temporary respite, the transplanted tissue inevitably succumbing to necrosis and dying away on the face of the wounded Christiane Genessier (Edith Scob). Alerted by Christiane’s suspicious fiance Jacques (Francois Guerin), the police hatch a scheme to see what Dr. Genessie is really up to, but their plans go awry, placing another victim in danger and precipitating a final, violent confrontation that brings the horror to a climax.
What raises EYES WITHOUT A FACE to the level of a masterpiece is the thorough conviction with which the story is treated, at all levels: the performances, direction, photography, and art direction – all combine to create a world in which fragile, poetic beauty is periodically shattered by clinical horror. The juxtaposition of the contrasting imagery is, in some miraculous fashion, entirely seamless, all part and parcel of the same picture, never feeling gratuitously grafted on. In effect, it is as if Christiane’s enigmatic, mysterious masks were periodically peeled away to reveal the hidden ugliness beneath the beautiful facade. The result is not merely frightening but also genuinely disturbing – and thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. This is the first “art” horror film, and it’s cross-over appeal between the art house and the grindhouse should not be overestimated.
EYES WITHOUT A FACE was made at a time when recent box office trends had revealed at audience apetite for graphic horror. At the end of the 1950s, after nearly a decade of sci-fi monster movies (usually involving atomic radiation and/or interstellar aliens), Gothic films had made a resurgence, thanks largely to England’s Hammer Productions, which released such titles as Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958). Although the choice of subject matter was old-fashioned, the approach was new and bold – and unafraid of the occasional application of blood.
French producer Jules Borkon wanted to ride this new bandwagon to success, and he hired Franju to create the first French horror film. The closest that refined French cinema had come to the genre was Henri-Georges Clouzot’s1955 Diaboliques, which features a horrifying resurrection sequence at the climax; however, the script ultimately explained away the horror as trickery, and the film works mostly as a mystery thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock mold.
Franju eschewed any attempt to hide behind the “mystery-thriller” label. Working with the Diaboliqueswriting team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (whose other credits include the novel on which Hitchcock based his film Vertigo), Franju crafted a film that was not afraid to shock. Curiously, EYES WITHOUT A FACE was designed specifically to avoid censorship expected problems, yet Franju never seems to be suffering from undue restraint or directing with one arm tied behind his back.
The director’s most famous previous work had been The Blood of Beasts, a documentary that intercut pleasant scenes of everyday in France with the carnage of a slaughterhouse – presumably to make some kind of statement about the bloody horrors that are a secret, hidden part of civilized society – usually kept out of sight and out of mind.
“I’m led to give documentary realism the appearance of fiction,” he once explained of his work, and one could say that he employed a similar to great effect – lending fiction the appearance of a documentary – in EYES WITHOUT A FACE. For despite the artistic trappings that surround Christiane and her plight, the majority of the film is actually devoted to her father’s quest to cure her – which is presented with the clinical detachment of a documentary, emotionless medical jargon and antiseptic surgical procedure underlining the appalling horror of Dr. Gessenier’s actions.
The result led to quite a few shocked reactions when the film was originally released. EYES WITHOUT A FACE was the first full-blown French horror film, and French critics did not know what to make of it. Some were outraged and dismissive; those who liked it had to rationalize it, pretending it was not a horror film but something else, such as a film noir masquerading the genre label.
And it was not only the French who were caught by surprise; in fact, initial reactions to the film seem to have predated The Exorcist(1973) by over a decade: At the Edinburgh Film Festival, seven viewers reportedly fainted during the infamous surgery scene. Apparently pleased with the reaction, Franju remarked, “Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts.”
Unfortunately, the U.S. distributor did not quite know what to do with the film, which was retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and dubbed into English for stateside distribution in 1960, when it was. released on double bill with the rather more conventional monster flick, The Manster. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine what teen-aged drive-in audiences made of this unusual French film, but it’s safe to say that, in its English form, it never earned a reputation as a beloved horror classic.
Fortunately, the reputation of EYES WITHOUT A FACE has only grown with the passing of years, especially with art house screenings in its original un-dubbed form, under its original title, followed by a Criterion Collection DVD release, loaded with bonus features. The film is now often regarded as a unique masterpiece, so much so that including it in a list of the Top 100 Horror Films of all time is hardly controversial, despite the film’s art house approach to what is, basically, a grizzly mad scientist’s tale.
THE HORROR! THE HORROR!
As in Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein, much of the horror in EYES WITHOUT A FACE is moral and/or psychological. Both films deal with a brilliant surgeon who is figuratively blind to the horror he leaves in his wake while pursuing his goals.(Ironically, Peter Cushing, who played the Baron in Curse, would go on to star in Corruption, which is more or less a remake of EYES WITHOUT A FACE). Dr. Genessier has a streak of kindness in him, but he is also the ultimate authoritarian, who is seeking to repair his daughter less because he loves her than because he needs to undo his own mistake. This clinical detachment is underlined in his nurse, Louise, who (like the enablers of the holocaust) obediently follows orders, never doubting the superior wisdom of the Doctor. The psychological impact of this on Christiane is never explored in depth; we merely project it onto that frozen rubber face she wears, and her actions at the end eventually spell it out for us.
So much for the intangible horror. What does EYES WITHOUT A FACE actually show?
We never really see Christiane’s ruined face, except in a series of still photographs that chart the decay of her latest transplant. However, the film is far from reticent when it comes to graphic horror.
- The most famous sequence is the skin graft operation, which is handled in a single, uninterrupted shot. The imagery – a face literally being dissected from a head – is guaranteed to send even modern audiences into paroxysms of loathing and disgust, squirming and averting their eyes from the screen. (To be completetly honest, if you overcome your fear long enough to watch closely, you can more or less see through the effect, yet the overall seriousness of the approach manages to sell the scene, regardless.)
- At the climax, when Christiane decides enough is enough, she takes a scalpel and cuts her father’s latest intended victim loose. Louise appears and demands that Christiane give her the scalpel. Christiane gives it to her all right – burying it deep in her neck! The shock of the scene derives from its matter-of-fact presentation, which is utterly convincing. The real kicker, however, is Louise’s reaction. Instead of the expected scream of pain, she offers up only a tear of sadness and the plaintive question “Why?” Ever the loyal servant, she cannot understand Christiane’s homicidal rebellion against her father’s plans.
- Somewhat less graphic, but equally cathartic, Christiane then lets loose the dogs that her father keeps around as guinea pigs (apparently, he performs vivesection experiments on the side) and sets them upon her father.
As the vengeful dogs tear their breathren’s tormentor to pieces (rather like the human animal hybrids do to Dr. Moreau in 1932’s Island of Lost Souls), Christiane wanders from her house out into the nearby woods, a lost soul still, but at least now free, accompanied by doves that flit like the Holy Spirit above her, making us see her as some kind of strange angel. Where will she go? What kind of future, realistically, is there for her? Will she reunite with her fiance? It doesn’t matter. The poetry of the image is ending enough to satisfy the eye and the mind. Anything that might or might not happen afterwards is irrelevant.
In the J-horror film Ring 0: Birthday (a prequel to Ring), troubled psychic girl Sadako works as part of a theatre group in Tokyo that is presenting a stage version of EYES WITHOUT A FACE. Although the title is not mentioned (at least in the English subtitles), the dialogue leaves no doubt about the identity of the play.
EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les Yeux sans Visage, 1960). Directed by George Franju. Screenplay by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet, and Jean Redon, from the novel by Redon; dialogue by Pierre Gascar. Cast: Pierre Brasseur – Docteur Genessier; Alida Valli – Louise; Juliette Mayniel – Edna; Edith Scob – Christiane Genessier; Francois Guerin – Jacques Vernon; Alexandre Rignault – Inspector Parot; Beatrice Altariba – Paulette.
This article originally identified EYES WITHOUT A FACE as a 1959 film; however, IMDB lists it as 1960.