Directed by Georges Franju
Written by Boileau-Narcejac, Jean Redon, Claude Sautet and Pierre Gascar
At an Edinburgh Film Festival screening of Eyes Without a Face, seven audience members, according to L’Express, fainted and “dropped like flies”.
In response, director Georges Franju opined, in a particularly tactless exercise in foreign affairs, “now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts”.
To be fair to the Scottish, Eyes Without a Face is rather sordid, hideous, grotesque and morbid, but, to be fair to Franju, the film is also rather amazing. Unwelcomed and shunned in 1960 (to say the least), Eyes Without a Face has since been elevated to legendary status and is still as unsettling as it was when it was first released.
In a narrative sense, the film was seen as a pioneer of the mad doctor story, with Pierre Brasseur playing Dr. Génessier, a brilliant surgeon who uses his skills to reconstruct the mutilated face of his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), who is forced to wear a mask.
Wracked with guilt for causing her disfigurement, Génessier tries obsessively to repair what he’s broken, enlisting the help of Louise (Alida Valli), a woman whose face was previously restored by Génessier.
Together, they lure young women into a gruesome trap, taking their faces and grafting it onto Christiane’s.
As shocking as the premise of Eyes Without a Face is, considering the spirit of the times, the film’s inherent repulsiveness is further heightened by the eerie and disquieting atmosphere that it creates.
Shot in a lugubrious black and white, the photography adds a dark dimension to the Kafkaesque storytelling. They visuals are just as eloquent and expressive as any narrator, and, like the mask, the essence and understanding of the film can be understood by its visual appeal alone.
Add that to a strangely out-of-place, yet incredibly apropos carnival-like musical score, which juxtaposes the jovial nature of the music with the disturbing nature of the story, and you have an experience that binds you to your place, that compels you to watch. Even if you don’t want to, and, let it be known, there are many instances where you don’t.
The one major, if only, flaw of the film is in its inconsistent storytelling. The idea of a successful face transplant, in 1960, would seem implausible for some viewers, but considering the fact that this a horror film, there can be some leeway in this regard.
But there is one inconceivable moment near the end of the film that almost shatters the suspension of disbelief. It involves a police set-up that is so poorly planned and executed, it puts a woman in harms way for no logical reason. The incompetence behind the scheme is so blatant and nonchalant that it would be more befitting in a Three Stooges skit than in a horror film.
And although one can argue that it’s methodical, the direction can feel sluggish and meandering. It takes a while for the film to get to a moment of significance, and even then, it tends to be repetitive.
For example, the idea of Louise baiting young women into a trap is intriguing and suspenseful, but because she does this over and over again, we are anaesthetized to the situation. Perhaps it supposed to mirror how Génessier and Louise are desensitized to their nefarious adventures, or to accentuate the futility of it all, but the result is a story that, at times, feels stagnate and drawn-out.
But for all the complaints that one can lodge at Eyes Without a Face, they are masked, so to speak, by the film’s impressive and provocative visuals. Poetic, isn’t it?
The reputation of Eyes Without a Face has not been greatly exaggerated. Although considered a classic today, it had a different status entirely upon its initial release. Which is to say, people hated it. They really, really, really hated it. No exaggeration.
For the French highbrow establishment, the unanimous consensus was to abjectly disown it. In fact, many tried to deny that the film even existed. For them, horror was a sub-genre, meaning a subordinate one, the French equivalent of a B-movie. French cinema was supposed to be artistic, lyrical and ornate. No serious cineaste would debase his or herself by making a horror picture.
As French popular opinion was revered as gospel (as it sometimes still is), the rest of the world regarded the film with equal disdain, and, at the time, an English reviewer who dared to express her affinity for the film was almost fired for her opinion.
It’s a shame that we still don’t know the identity of this reviewer, because she was prophetic in her critical appraisal of the film. Decades later, after its critical lampooning, Eyes Without a Face is now considered an unmitigated classic, a film as influential as it is great.
In fact, John Carpenter tacitly suggested that the mask in Halloween was modeled after the one in Eyes, while many point out the film’s influence in the works of Jesús Franco and John Woo (Face/Off, the use of doves). And where would David Cronenberg and his body horror aesthetic be without it?
Eyes Without a Face is now considered a really, really, really good movie. A classic. No exaggerations. Who’d have guessed that? Well, there was at least one person who did.
– Justin Li
Eyes Without a Face is a part of TIFF Cinematheque’s ‘Summer in France’. For more information and tickets, please visit the official website