Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Written by Georges Franju, Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet, and Pierre Gascar
Directed by Georges Franju
The 1960s were the prelude to the horror boom of the 1970s. This means you’ll find some archetypes and tropes refined here, elements that will be at their zenith in the following decade. Foreign film markets were gaining strength during the Sixties, with places like France & Italy at the forefront. There weren’t many French horror films then, so Eyes Without a Face was quite different. Producer Jules Borkon thought it was an untapped market in France and purchased the rights to a horror novel he’d recently read. Director Georges Franju had only made documentaries, so this was his first fictional narrative feature. Smartly, he hired writers who had worked on Les Diaboliques and Hitchcock’s Vertigo to help work out the script. The result is something that feels like a horrific modern fairy tale. A princess locked in a tower in the woods who has been turned into a monster by another.
Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is a plastic surgeon developing a radical new skin graft procedure when he’s suddenly called to the police station. He’d reported his daughter, Christiane, missing, and a body, its face having been torn off, has been recovered from a river. Génessier confirms it is his daughter and runs into the father of another missing girl, who gives him condolences; that man’s child is still missing. Génessier’s assistant Louise is prowling Paris, stalking Edna, a student looking for a place to live. Louise offers Edna a spare room in Génessier’s estate, but its location in the middle of the woods is a bit inconvenient. If you haven’t figured it out yet, the good doctor is up to some nasty business in his home, and Christiane may not be as dead as people believe she is.
The gore shown in Eyes Without a Face won’t likely make a modern audience flinch, but I believe it still holds the potential to profoundly unnerve audiences. On its initial release, it was one of those movies where audiences were losing their minds at the explicit content on screen. There is an extended scene where we watch Dr. Génessier performing a face removal and graft, and it’s done in so much detail. The camera never pans away, focusing even tighter on the scalpel cutting through skin, the blood pooling at the edges, and the face being lifted off its owner. I can easily see how a 1960s audience would have their minds blown seeing something so gory. It’s pretty awesome. The movie was such a scandal that the French establishment acted as though it didn’t exist. An English critic who wrote a favorable review was fired.
Eyes Without a Face stood as a chief example of how the horror genre was (and still is) often maligned by the gatekeepers of art. There’s no argument that many horror films are pure schlock; the same could be said about science fiction, melodrama, westerns, etc. Every film genre has its trash, and people enjoy those movies or don’t. But it’s such a myopic argument to try and say that all horror is unworthy of being considered art. The French had no issues with fantasist cinema and made some incredible ones. Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête comes to mind as a movie praised by critics. Limiting critical perception of any film is anathema to genuine art appreciation. Even the sloppiest, trashiest movie is an expression of someone’s worldview, and that’s art. It can be an abhorrent worldview, but through art, we can learn how to articulate why we believe it is wrong. It still adds to the conversation that all art promotes. Eyes Without a Face is certainly not anywhere close to being a disposable film.
This is a retelling of Frankenstein but framed as a father-daughter melodrama. Edith Scob delivers a remarkable performance as Christiane, especially because she is so handicapped by not having much dialogue and spending most of the movie behind one of the simplest yet most disturbing masks I’ve seen in a film. It is essentially a death mask that she wears while floating around the large, dark manor in the woods. That said, she is a complex character who doesn’t have a clear idea of if she wants to be alive or not. She has a lover she hasn’t seen since her accident, and he doesn’t know she’s still alive. The tension between Christiane and her father eventually reaches a fever pitch, and for the audience, it’s evident this will end in tragedy.
What makes Eyes Without a Face work is its commitment to a tone that communicates both eerie horror and a sense of the absurd. The loopy organ music heard over the opening titles becomes the movie’s theme, a spiral descending into madness. It complements the horrific things happening in that bleak house in the forest. The film’s refusal to paint its antagonists in a clearly defined light makes it so formidable. For all the atrocities happening in his basement laboratory, Dr. Génessier isn’t a complete monster. He runs a clinic on his property, and we even see him genuinely doting over a child in his care. That scene, along with the face removal, was cut from the American version. I think that says a lot about the nature of America and its understanding of the concepts of good and evil. Sometimes the most evil people are also capable of being kind. Evil isn’t as clear-cut as those in power would have us believe. Benevolence and malevolence live side by side within us all.