EYES WITHOUT A FACE/1968
1960/Director: Georges Franju/Writers: Jean Redon (novel), Pierre Boileau
Cast: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel, Edith Scob, Alexandre Rignault
I cannot say honestly that I have seen much French cinema. I went through a phase almost a couple decades ago where I watched a batch by the big names like Jean-Luc Goddard and Francois Truffaut but other than the Truffaut film The 400 Blows I can’t remember any of that stuff. I do now recall I saw Goddard’s Breathless and it was so much better than the remake with Richard Gere. I guess the only French filmmaker I may follow at all would be Jean Rollin. Well I had read about the film Yuex Sans Visage for a while and had had it on disk for months before I was in the mood one night for some Euro-fare. I did not expect too much going into the film other than maybe some nice black and white cinematography and loads of spacey acting. I am happy to report that I was surprised by this film and it deserves the praises it normally receives in reviews. The cinematography was great as was the score by Maurice Jarre and the acting was down to earth and believable. I mean, for a French film. I am not into the European “existential'”school of depressed method acting. For example like Catherine Deneuve in Polanksi’s Repulsion. Damn, I can’t finish that film no matter how hard I try. I guess depression is scary. I mean just watch Woody Allen’s Interiors. That’s scary stuff!
Director Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face has many of the elements of Euro-depression cinema that I found I was never hip enough to appreciate really but it also has the qualities of a good film noir story as well which I can appreciate. In fact I would say the film is more of a crime drama than a horror film. Outside a fairly graphic operation scene, that was pretty ahead of its type in terms of shock and gore, the film is more like an Alfred Hitchcock movie than any sort of horror film. The movie was even released in the States as a double bill with the Japanese-American horror film The Manster (a great film that will be reviewed here someday). A more fitting double feature would have possibly been Eyes Without a face and Psycho. Reviews mention the influence of German Expressionism and filmmakers Cocteau and Murnau and I am pretty much out of my element here for the most part so will leave all that to the experts. What I can say about this film is that it looks beautiful and the story moves along briskly. It never gets too pretentious and, as far as I concerned, does not try to deliver some unnecessarily deep message. I mean that is there if you want to look for it. It has to be. The film is French for God’s sake. This is the place that produced Sartre and Camus. Probably coffee commercial there have some message about the isolated individual standing naked before a cold, merciless Universe. But this also a straightforward, watchable suspense film.
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The story is about the anguish of the horribly disfigured and masked Christiane (Edith Scob). We are not sure of the details other than that it was her father who was driving the car that wrecked her face beyond recognition in an accident one night. As chance would have her father is Dr. Genessier, a renowned surgeon. Now he is driven by his guilt and love for his daughter to restore her face at any cost. And of course this includes murder if necessary. The film opens with his devoted assistant Louise (Alida Valli) disposing of a body in a dark, cold river. The body belongs to the last females Dr. Genessier used in his experiments to graft the face from one young female with similar features onto Christiane. The operation failed and I am not sure why the girl is dead but it is of little consequence really. As anyone who is familiar with the” disfigured face restoration” sub-genre in horror knows the doctor will stop at nothing to not only restore the face of the one he loves but to prove his own genius to the world. Dr. Genessier actually seems to be driven more by guilt than glory and this twist rescues Eyes Without a Face from becoming simply another mad doctor movie. In fact he never comes off as insane or deluded, but as simply driven.
There is little doubt, however, that Louise and Dr. Genessier are ultimately a dark and sinister pair. When the body of the dead girl is fished from the river Genessier identifies the body as that of Christine’s, much to the despair of the girl’s real father who is at his wit’s end. Louise soon sets out to trolling Paris looking for the next “subject” and it is found the form of the lovely young Edna (Juliette Mayniel). Edna is looking for a room to rent and Louise gains her trust and drives her out to the remote country chateau of Genessier and his clinic. Edna soon develops reservations but it far too late. She is chloroformed and soon on a surgical table having her face lifted off in one of the most uncomfortable scenes ever put to film. It is unflinching and done slowly. The flesh is actually lifted from the girl’s face in a fairly graphic fashion that had it been in color would have been simply exploitative gore not far removed from the likes of Hershall Gordon Lewis. Not to suggest the film resembles the shabby exploitation fare of Lewis as a whole. Just that this one scene is more disquieting than, in black and white, than any of Lewis’s full color comic book style violence. It is all the more disturbing because the character of Edna is developed fully in her short time on screen and you really do not want anything so horrible to happen to her. Edna soon commits understandable suicide and the yet the operation at first seems to be a success. But soon Edna’s body begins to reject the new face and little by little it deteriorates and a new subject is needed.
Christiane spends her days alone in an upstairs bedroom and sometimes in moments of lonely despair calls her former fiancee Jacques (Francois Guerin). She listens to him say hello over and over before hanging up in anguish. Jacques is in contact with the local police and suspects that there is more to Christiane’s case than meets the eyes. Soon the police have the same feeling and in a recurring scenario that happens in often in European styled crime films they enlist the help of an untrained civilian in acting as bait to attract the attention of the killer or killers. In this case the civilian is Paulette (Beatrice Altariba) who resembles Christiane and is all but blackmailed by the cops in securing her cooperation. The film ends with Christiane setting Paulette free and realizing that she can never have her face back and that the cost is too great for her to bear any longer. She stabs Louise with a scalpel and turns loose the dogs used by her father in his early skin grafting experiments. In true poetic justice the dogs turn on their master and rip his face. Christiane walks off into the night surrounded by the fluttering white doves she also set free from their captivity.
The images of Christiane’s eyes staring through the unmoving mask are haunting and convey a surprising range of emotion. Well, a surprising range of depressing emotions but what else would we expect. John Carpenter said the mask used in the film was an influence on his final selection for the mask he chose fro Michael Myer’s in his Halloween films. The Frech title of the film, Yuex Sans Visage, is sang in the chorus of the Billy Idol song Eyes Without a Face. The movie inspired two Jesse Franco films, Gritos en la noche (with Dr. Orloff) and Faceless. The interesting Italian film Atom Age Vampire (review coming someday) also deals with an obsessed surgeon trying to restored his daughter’s disfigured face at any cost. Cannot recommend this one enough. Also now have Franju’s first film Le Sang de Betes (Blood of the Beasts) which is an experimental film about animals being butchered in lovely black and white in an arbitoir. I’ll get back on that one some sunny day.