Les yeux sans visage (English title: Eyes Without A Face). 1960. Directed by Georges Franju. Adaptation by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Jean Redon, Claude Sautet with dialogue from Pierre Gascar; based on the novel by Jean Redon.
Starring Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel, Alexandre Rignault, Béatrice Altariba, Claude Brasseur, Michel Etcheverry, & Edith Scob. Champs-Élysées Productions/Lux Film.
Unrated. 90 minutes.
★★★★★Eyes Without A Face (original French title: Les yeux sans visage) is one of those films I’d heard about for years. I knew the iconic mask – hell, even John Carpenter once suggested Michael Myers’ mask was inspired by the one worn here by Edit Scob. After having seen Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In a few years ago I now see how much it was influenced by this; the director himself saying that Georges Franju’s 1960 horror classic inspired him hugely.
Point is, these are just a couple examples of how Eyes Without A Face went on to influence other filmmakers, as well as how it became an iconic work of horror at a time when most other horror – aside from maybe some William Castle stuff and of course Peeping Tom and Psycho also released in ’60 – was keeping with the traditional view of the genre. While both Peeping Tom and Psycho gave birth to the slasher sub-genre, it’d be another eight years before George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead went against conventions and tried to innovate on the classic movie monster.
Based on the Jean Redon novel from a year prior, Franju’s adaptation used the human as monster and played with the classical idea of the Gothic horror. This tells the tale of a woefully misguided surgeon named Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), who slips into a life of death and delusion after causing a car accident which disfigured his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) – and now he tries to find the perfect face to replace the one he’s damaged.Right from the opening scene, the score from composer Maurice Jarre takes us into a Gothic, eerie place, like a carnivalesque sense that we’re about to enter the next darkened tent to witness something horrifying. We do, though it’s shrouded in mystery and the opening action shows us a woman hauling the lifeless body of another woman from a car. There’s subtlety in how the screenplay stretches out afterwards, but immediately Franju steeps us in a world of murder.
The screenplay is never dull. Its pacing is steady enough to engage while burning slow, never spoiling itself too early. Watching the doctor go home to Christiane, who we’ve yet to see, is tedious, although a suspenseful and mastered scene – Franju mounts our suspense, then he won’t show us Christiane, not just yet. He savours having us in the dark awhile longer, and keeps us dangling on the hook. One of the greatest scenes of the film – maybe any film in existence. Up there in my books; an exercise in how to use your plot points to an enormous advantage. Franju makes you expect reward before letting you wait longer for it, using expectation against us. One we actually do see Christiane’s blank face mask, it’s a bit jarring, but in that moment feels tragic, like seeing a beautiful, caged bird. The score in these moments is gorgeously strange and classic sounding in the same breath. On the list of my most beloved horror scores. Jarre passed in 2009 at the age of 84 having done great work later in his career with David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Taps, The Dead Poets Society, and Jacob’s Ladder. But this early work for Franju is maybe his best. An exhilarating, gorgeous score that haunts long after the film is over.
The Gothic horror comes out wonderfully through the misguidedly homicidal love of a father for his daughter, and the spectre of guilt which hovers over him. With all that comes horrific imagery. An early scene sees Christiane playing with the dogs at their big home. It’s an unsettling image because of her blank mask. The dogs aren’t aggressive with her, yet they almost seem to treat her differently; they can’t make out her identity, they bark at her. This is the first time we start to understand that without a face, her identity is lost. A sad thing. Not long later, she takes off the mask. A woman sees her without it, screaming, though we only see a highly blurred vision of it – and still, it’s frightening, again proving showing less can sometimes do even more if the technique is done right.
Black-and-white film provides horror a unique look in certain respects. Any blood appears black, somehow messier like a spill of oil staining everything. When the naughty doctor is removing a face, we get to see a bit of gruesome stuff. Remarkably executed practical effects, which feel clinical, gruesome, and allows Eyes Without A Face to cross that threshold of the older style of Gothic horror. Here, the Gothic gets bloodier, if only for a while.
We start to realise that love isn’t what’s driving the doctor any longer when Franju shows us shots of Christiane’s recovering face after one attempted transplant. The photographs are disturbing in and of themselves. At the same time, these shots give us a window into the hubris the doctor feels in regards to his own abilities. Once it was love that drove him, now it’s simply belief in himself as a leading, groundbreaking scientist. The film also changes direction slightly after this.
Finally, it’s the image of Christiane free the animals I dig so much. She gives them freedom as she has found her own, too. Ironically, the dogs then eat her father’s face into an unrecognisable, bloody mash.
No doubt this is a 5-star classic of cinema. The performances are fantastic and they’re part of why the drama of the screenplay comes out so fine. Franju’s directing is spot on, alongside the horror. I can’t recommend this one enough. When the Halloween season creeps up on us I’m usually inclined to revisit it because there’s a mix of classic and modern you don’t find in many films. Not even the ones I mentioned earlier, such as Hitchcock’s classic; they’re good in their own right, but Franju has something more, something elegant and exotic and odd enough to feel separate from the pack.
If you’ve never seen it, this is a great one to throw on if you’re needing a throwback to the old days. There’s a few nice drops of blood, filmed gorgeously through the lens of Eugen Schüfftan, plus every bit of the black-and-white gives the movie a sense of German Expressionism, with light casting shadows in all sorts of appropriate places (notice they look like prison bars on the faces of many who enter the doctor’s home). Do yourself a solid, watch this. Hopefully you’ll get the spooks like me.