When you think about the French New Wave, you probably immediately conjure up Godard’s stylish crime thrillers or self-consciously cool explorations of the politics of sex and gender. Truffaut’s The 400 Blows will certainly come to mind.
You probably don’t think horror movie.
That may change after you take a look at the Criterion edition of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face.
It opens with the dumping of a corpse, a “hide the body” scene as good as any in Hitchcock (and more brutal). Its accompanied by a score as creepy and borderline psychotic as anything Bernard Herrmann ever composed. What follows is a descent into madness, mutilation and strange obsessions, a story that unleashes some of the most vicious cinematic ghosts of the 20th century.
In the new Criterion Blu-ray transfer, Franju tells the story of a prominent Paris doctor who believes he can repair his daughter’s mutilated face. In order to carry out the radical surgery, he and his mistress stalk and kill young women, stealing their faces in scenes that evoke Nazi medical experimentation.
Originally released in 1960, Eyes Without a Face became part of a trio of films that proved incredibly determinative for the themes in horror films for the next 50 years. In the same year came Peeping Tom from England and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Each of these would deeply influence all the slasher films and body horror to follow.
Not every critic would connect Franju to the new wave, however, despite the contextual connection. Franju filmed Eyes Without a Face with a startlingly starkness. Graveyards, forests and even interiors have an emptiness about them that reads at times like the influence of German Expressionism. The terribly spare dialogue even gives it the feeling of a silent film.
In other ways, this film fits perfectly with the New Wave. Although outside the some of the parameters set by the work by Godard, Truffaut, and Roehmer, the truth is that the new wave tended to emphasize the end to parameters and a happy, deeply self-conscious experimentation with new forms. Eyes Without a Face represents the embodiment of this ethos.
Eyes Without a Face further shares the tendency of La Nouvelle Vague toward an indirect political engagement. Franju’s masterpiece appeared in the heart of the Algerian Revolution (the “Battle of Algiers” had just taken place in 1956). Stories of the French army’s use of torture had shaken the nation’s self-identity. A film that showed the human form ruined by mad medical experimentation tapped into this deeply felt moral and cultural anxiety.
If you’ve seen this film in a variety of poor quality prints before, you’ll be enthralled by what Criterion has done with this transfer. The black and whites are crisp and clear. The audio in particular has been given a good scrubbing and cleaning up, likely making for the highest quality print of Franju’s masterpiece we are likely to get.
The brutal element in Eyes Without a Face noted above, however, doesn’t reach the level found in Franju’s 1949 short subject, the famous “Blood of the Beasts”, which is included as an extra with this set. This shocking film, frankly fairly sickening even today, takes a documentarians camera into a Paris slaughterhouse.
Disturbing enough on its own, Franju intercut scenes of animal cruelty with images of children playing. In the opening scenes, the camera reveals a working class neighborhood slowing waking up to begin its day, but then takes us into the depths of the industrial abattoir. A horror film in its own right, it further underscores Franju’s interest in transmuting the horrors of the 20th century into art.
Extras also include a recent interview with actor Edith Scob who perfectly portrayed the mad doctor’s daughter and ultimate experiment, Christiane Génessier. Scob describes some of the difficulties of her role, most of which she performed behind an unforgettable macabre mask. Her memories of Franju are perhaps the best elements in the supplementary materials.
Although the disc does not contain anything like a traditional “Making Of” featurette, this edition of Eyes Without a Face includes a booklet containing essays by novelist Patrick McGrath and film historian David Kalat. These are both exceptional commentaries on the film. McGrath beautifully reads the mise-en-scène while Kalat explains the history of the films production and its subsequent fate. We learn, for example, that before receiving much deserved critical acclaim, Eyes Without a Face appeared in the United States on the drive-in circuit, dubbed into English with the title changed to The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.
In an interview for French television included in the extras, Franju claims that he never cared for fairy tales, even the frightening ones, as a child. To him, the terrors of reality provided enough nightmare fuel.
Eyes Without a Face represents this sensibility, the idea of existential terror rooted in the terrors of being human rather than the supernatural. It’s a harsh and ugly reality that still somehow leaves you with a wispy, dreamy feeling, a feeling that echoes the final shot of poor, ruined Christiane wandering into the dark heart of the forest.