Eyes Without a Face (1960)
By: Mr Intolerance on August 22, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
DVD
Umbrella Entertainment (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). French DD 2.0 mono. English subtitles. 90 minutes
The Movie
Credits
Director: Georges Franju
Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Alida Valli
Screenplay: Pierre Boileau, Jean Redon, Claude Sautet, Pierre Gascar
Country: France
AKA: Les Yeux Sans Visage; The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
I'm guaranteeing that when most people hear the title Eyes Without A Face, they immediately think of the craptacular Billy Idol song of the same name, not Georges Franju's shocking slice of modern French Gothic cinema.

Christiane (Edith Scob) is a beautiful young woman who's undergone horrific facial disfiguring injuries in a car accident (Franju wisely keeps her naked face off-screen – what you can imagine is always much, much worse than what you can see – the imagination is never limited by quickly dated special effects). Her father Professor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), who just happens to be a plastic surgeon, and who was the driver responsible for the accident, wants nothing more than for his little girl to be able to go outside into the world again as something more than a freak to be stared at, and so starts to garner a series of unwilling facial donors – let's face it, who'd be willing to give up their own face for someone else?

The gruesome nature of the situation is complemented by beautifully artistic camerawork, and the surreal, almost dream-like imagery of Christiane, a prisoner in her own home, friendless and alone (besides her beloved dogs) behind her plain white mask, expressing herself only through her plaintive dialogue and her pathetically melancholy eyes (hence the title of the film).

The film begins with a body being dumped mysteriously in a river – the driver, a furtive-looking woman (understandably so, I mean whatever nefarious thing she's up to is hardly a spectator sport…) will become familiar to us. The victim's identity remains initially a mystery. We cut to Christiane's father giving a lecture on what he calls the heterograft – the transplanting of organs and such from one being to another. It doesn't sound much like the process is terribly inviting, or even that much of an exact and well-defined science: in one instance (once you've tissue-typed the bodies and found them compatible), to exorcise any chance of tissue rejection, the body has to receive a blast of X-rays so powerful that no human being can endure it. The other option is the total exsanguination of the body – neither sounds terribly inviting, both of them seeming positively lethal. This is all stated in a very matter of fact fashion, without sentiment – clinical, the Professor's character note. Although we do quickly establish that he wasn't always this way (a standard Gothic genre convention – the anti-hero scarred (either physically, mentally or emotionally) by experience), and that the common public misconception is that Christiane is dead.

A faceless corpse is fished out of the Seine and taken to the local morgue, where Genessier identifies her without the shadow of a doubt (you have to wonder why the police believe him, seeing as he only looks at where the face should be) as Christiane, who escaped from the institute she'd been living in since the accident earlier that night. It all seems to fit a little too neatly, and the audience quickly work out what's really going on.

The corpse is buried in the Genessier family tomb, and at the funeral we're introduced to Christiane's fiancé Jacques, and the Professor's secretary Louise, who we realise is the woman we saw carting the corpse down to the river for a little amateur "burial at sea" action at the beginning of the film. The plot, as they say, thickens.

As in Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun or the episode of The Twilight Zone, "Eye of the Beholder", the face being kept off-screen is generally handled with aplomb, although it can seem a little contrived at times. French censorship being what it was at the time (my, how times have changed!), it was also expedient to skimp on the overt nasty if you wanted your film to be seen. (There is one scene where Christiane's disfigurement is seen, but it's thankfully blurred, so as not to shatter the illusion of reality – and also, if it had been in sharp detail, the film might have had a few censorship problems to deal with – critical reception was not kind as it was, with the film attacked as being "sick" in some quarters).

Christiane is understandably upset when she finds an obituary notice for herself, and finds it hard to place her faith in daddy-dear. He, however, is determined to come up trumps in his plan to successfully graft a new face on to Christiane using the heterograft. Right about now we have to start questioning his motives? He certainly doesn't appear to be the affectionate father, so love can be ruled out. Guilt seems a little more likely, but I'm still not convinced. Pig-headed professional pride is a little more closer the mark, I think, but I think I'd be putting my money on now having the perfect excuse to experiment on his pet theory, with little in the way to stop him from using whomever he can for a human guinea-pig. After all, up until this point, the doctor has been restricted to experimenting with the heterograft on Christiane's dogs, in another grotesque moment of unfeeling nastiness. Genessier is presented to us as having no real empathy – his morality is closer to that of a butcher than a surgeon. Hippocratic oath? Bollocks! And yet, at times, both he and the secretary do recognise that they are committing terrible acts – doesn't make them pause for breath at any point, though. It's this moral quagmire we enter into that makes the film work – it positively drives it, and renders it a more powerful film than the average brainless genre flick (as I own many of them), and gives it a depth and weight that's denied most psychological horror films.

We're mining a similar vein to that of dear old Mary Shelley's 19th century Gothic tale of science without limits or conscience, Frankenstein – and as in that very text, the main character's monomania becomes so horribly all-consuming that they end up doing things that would normally be abhorrent, literally unthinkable to them, before – now, however… So while it's not exactly a new idea, that of where should science have its limits; or when should humanity intervene in progress, it's handled deftly, and with a fair amount of grit, provided by the hard-boiled scriptwriting team of novelists Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (also responsible for L'Diabolique and one of Hitchcock's masterworks Vertigo), updating the Gothic genre, removing much of the overtly melodramatic language, and leaving us with a sleek, taut plot that was very much a product of its day – even down to a rather ambiguous ending.

Poor Christiane drifts aimlessly from room to room in the otherwise deserted chateau, very much our Gothic "damsel in distress", like a ghost – somehow ethereal and sadly trapped – a somehow tragic figure in her oddly disturbing, expressionless mask. The covered mirrors a silent reminder of her terrible disfigurement (we're told early on that her face is "an open wound"), she tries in a moment of pathos so thick you could head butt it to call her fiancé, but can only listen, mute to his growing annoyance at what he thinks is a prank call.

Meanwhile, Louise (who we are told has undergone extremely extensive facial reconstructive surgery at the hands of the good doctor herself) has gone into gay Paree to lure an innocent victim to an untimely demise, and into having her face removed for Christiane's use. The unwary young woman is led on by the promise of a room for rent – and guess whose house it's in?

So, as you'd expect, Genessier chloroforms her and she's taken downstairs by the secretary and the good doctor to prep her for the operation. Christiane's tacit agreement to these procedures makes her more than a bit morally questionable, but at least she has the decency to be conflicted by the whole situation. Deep down she knows it's wrong, but predictable self-interest will always find a way.

The operation scene is pretty confronting for its day, unflinching in its detail – this literally had 'em screaming in the aisles back in the day (at the film's initial screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival, seven people fainted, prompting Franju to acerbically state, "Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts."). It's still a little uncomfortable even today, and the scene was cut for American release. Post-op, Edna, our now faceless victim, makes a bid for freedom, but y'all know what the chances are at this early stage of the film. Christiane comes through her recovery with flying colours, and despite having a whole new face, it is still her eyes that dominate her face, not in that cruel Barbara Steele way, but still emitting an almost ethereal radiance, a pathos and sad beauty. Genessier plans on sending her away with forged papers on a long trip before working out how to re-introduce her into society – but Christiane's only thoughts are of her beloved fiancé Jacques.

But – the graft hasn't taken, necrosis has set in on the graft tissue, and the face has to be removed. Things are looking grim – and then, inevitably, it's back to the old drawing board for the Doc and Christiane, with an ever-increasing sense of both despair and urgency. However, things have gotten more complicated, with the police rather understandably being concerned about a rash of serial abductions, where all the women kidnapped are remarkably similar. And then of course, there's the spectacular fly in the ointment when Christiane calls Jacques and gets him all curious, which in turn leads him to the police. The dominoes start to fall in an inevitable way like in all the best tragedies – fate is inexorable, and wrong-doing must be addressed whatever the cost. The final act begins and it is a doozy, but I'll let you find that one out for yourself.

Loyalty, morality, hubris, humanity, identity – that's what Eyes Without A Face is really all about. The horror element is merely enjoyable and entertaining (if somewhat gruesome for its day) fancy-dress. Eyes Without A Face is a product of its time, when French literature was still dominated by the like of Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Batailles, maybe even with a dash of Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty thrown in for good measure. As an existentialist text it maybe doesn't quite have the gravitas of those authors' most memorable works, but it does still pack a pretty grim and hefty wallop.
Video

A good 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced) transfer, although at times a little soft for my liking – but that'll be the age of the print. It's generally crisp and grain-free, but like I said there are moments when you notice little imperfections on the screen, shimmer, for example. However, I'm sure that's probably just nit-picking.

Audio
The opening score sets the scene well before even a word is uttered, an idiomatically French-sounding tune, uncomfortably like carnival music – it unnerves through its monotony and its apparent jauntiness, yet drifts into a minor key, putting the audience on edge (think: the score from Jeunet and Caro's City of Lost Children). Otherwise the sound is serviceable, presented in dual channel French mono.
Extra Features

There's a featurette documentary on slaughterhouses made by Franju in 1949 called Blood of the Beasts, which is by turns extremely disturbing for its depictions of animal slaughter, and yet oddly poetic for its mise-en-scene. Go figure. I certainly won't be watching again any time soon. There are also some archival interviews with Franju about Blood of the Beasts which are thankfully more enlightening, and where he states, "only the truth matters. Nothing else counts." I can agree with the sentiment, but the actuality of what he shot? Morally dubious to say the least. Franju goes on to talk in an excerpt from Le Fantastique about Eyes Without A Face and his reaction to the whole notion of fantastic cinema – he is not a fan – in an interesting and articulate way. When Franju gets on to talking about what's really scary, it gets really quite intense. Next up we have an excerpt from a documentary called Les Grands-peres du crime, featuring co-scriptwriters Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (L'Diabolique and Vertigo), where the two old-timers talk about crime fiction in an engaging, interesting and above all informed way. Then, of course there's the inevitable theatrical trailer (four minutes long and not one spoiler – amazing!), and a bunch of Umbrella trailers for The Innocents, Herzog's version of Nosferatu, The Survivor, and Bava's Black Sunday.

The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Never really given the credence it's due, Eyes Without A Face is a sad, haunting tale. Not exactly outright horror like its contemporaries, Horror of Dracula or Psycho, it's a much more melancholy, less sensationalist affair: restrained, elegant and absolutely beautifully shot. The image of Christiane in her mask with her beautifully expressive, soulful, positively mournful, haunted eyes will stay with you well after the disc has stopped spinning. With none of the lurid gruesomeness of the early Hammer films, nor the eminently forgettable scripts and plot of the likes of The Hideous Sun Demon or Varan the Unbelievable! and their highly entertaining popcorn-munching brethren, Eyes Without A Face is a different kind of horror – I'd go so far as to say we're looking at the birth of the modern psychological horror film right here. Intelligent, daring, disturbing and bridging the gap between the Gothic, the realist and the philosophical, Eyes Without A Face takes us into a disconcerting world bereft of moral absolutes – their very subjectivity becomes the thing to be feared. In other words, when we look for thing that scares us most – it's us.

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