Whilst the filmmakers of the 1960 Italian-French co-production Eyes Without a Face clearly made a conscious effort to avoid the B-movie trope of a mad scientist conducting hideous human experiments in a gothic country lair – and indeed many critics of the period responded positively to the film’s perceived departure from genre — Georges Franju’s excellent work is nevertheless essentially still a high-class exploitation picture. Even if we are not offered an overt portrayal of a mad scientist, we still get plenty of mad science.
The essence of the film’s narrative is very familiar. Seen in countless offerings — from credible fare such as Universal’s Frankenstein, though to delicious grindhouse trash such a Michael Pataki’s 1976 schlockfest Mansion of the Doomed — Franju has managed to lift his material to a level of poetry and fable, creating a hypnotic film full of fairy tale aesthetics, one that offers a wonderful, dreamlike counterpoint to mainstream generic horror.
Eyes Without a Face tells the story of Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), an eminent French plastic surgeon whose formerly beautiful daughter Christiane (the striking Edith Scob) has been hideously disfigured. The reclusive Christiane, who wears a strange, smooth and expressionless mask, becomes a willing guinea pig for Genessier’s experiments, as the doctor strives to restore his daughter’s beauty and happiness.
Helped by his assistant Louise (played by the aristocratic Italian actress Alida Valli), Genessier lures young women from the Parisian streets to his isolated chateau, killing them in order that they can become unwitting facial donors. Naturally, the good doc’s plans are both grotesque and problematic and exacerbate the Genessier’s already tragic circumstances.
Where Eyes Without a Face deviates from the genre is with the figure of Genessier. Rather than portraying him as a stereotypical lunatic surrounded by bubbling test tubes and cackling at stormy night skies through a huge skylight, Franju ensures that Genessier is seen as a rather sad and empathetic figure, driven by the pure love that a parent has for its child. Accordingly, Brasseur’s performance is appropriately subdued, and expertly negotiates the fine line between normality and insanity. It’s not necessarily that the doctor is a well-rounded character (we know little about his background or life), but he is nevertheless and complicated and quietly troubled — and troubling — antagonist.
The film’s themes are complex, universal and timeless too, most notably regarding the superficiality and transience of beauty, the rapid passing of youth, and the morality of using nefarious means for essentially benign or benevolent reasons. It’s also a lament on physical ugliness and decay, a proto-Cronenbergesque body horror picture if you will.
What defines our identity, the film asks, and what are the implications of the death of one’s flesh – and particularly the destruction of one’s face – on that identity? Franju appears to take a meaningful, humanitarian approach to these questions; for whilst Christiane may be the recipient of a new visage that is stunningly beautiful (her father attempts many times to transplant beautiful faces on to his daughter, with many failures along the way), she nevertheless feels hollow, like a stranger to her true self when she looks in the mirror. She may temporarily acquire a restored external beauty, but this complicates her internal identity, and she suffers from the ambiguity.
Still, the tone is not unremittingly bleak, and a playful Franju is clearly having fun here and there. Despite a couple of very gruesome scenes, Eyes Without a Face is fairly “dry” with regards to gore, and what wet viscera is present is displayed in the context of tantalizing, icky Grand Guignol. Even the legendary composer Maurice Jarre’s light-hearted main theme suggests a whirling, repetitive carnival, his music setting us up to witness a tale from the spook house, rather than something unspeakably depressing.
Franju creatively uses sound to great and unsettling effect, particularly the sounds of off-screen animals. At the outset, a large pack of vicious, baying hounds can be heard in the chateau’s clinical outhouse (we later learn that the poor dogs are integral to Genessier’s experiments), and these noises reach a crescendo when the doctor is on-screen; it is beastliness by association.
Additionally, the first scene that introduces us to the tragic Christiane takes place in her plush and ornate white bedroom and features the off-screen diegetic cooing of doves in a cage. Not only are these sounds symbolic of the gentle and damaged young woman who is trapped in the house, but the waif-like Christiane also cranes and tilts her head in a curious and staccato avian fashion as she glides creepily around her small sanctuary; these odd head movements, in conjunction with the frightening mask she wears, create a nightmarish marriage of image and sound.
Franju had wanted to make a literate horror film that would be taken seriously as a work of art. Did he succeed? Largely he did, as Eyes Without a Face is a unique and unforgettable experience. In doing so, though, he made a film that will also appeal to mainstream horror buffs, which is quite an achievement. The film’s dark, Gallic charm is merely fancy cream piping atop a wonderfully rich and multi-layered gateau.
The film looks crisp and clear, with German cinematographer Eugen Schufftar’s black-and-white work beautifully rendered by the transfer. The film is presented here in a dual Blu-ray and DVD format and contains ample extras, which include a feature-length commentary by film journalist Tim Lucas, two earlier short films directed by Franju, a documentary about Franju’s work, an interview with the wonderful actress Scob, and a fully-illustrated booklet containing full credits and various essays about the film.