Eyes Without A Face (Les yeux sans visage)

France (1960) Dir. Georges Franju

Eminent surgeon Professor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is called in to identify the body of young girl whose face was mysteriously missing, which he confirmed was that of his missing daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), a victim of a car accident. After the funeral, Génessier and his loyal assistant Louise (Alida Valli) retreat back into Génessier’s large mansion where Christiane is alive and well but her face is hidden by a mask. The next day Louise befriends a young student Edna Grüber (Juliette Mayniel), the next potential, if unwilling, skin donor for fixing Christiane’s face.

French cinema is not known for its horror output although in latter years they’ve thrown a few gruesome efforts our way such as Switchblade Romance (2003) Them (2006) and Martyrs (2008). Even looking through the vaults of the classics and the closet you’ll find is Clouzot’s seminal creepy thriller Les Diaboliques.

With the Hammer horror boom from England providing much joy and amusement for French cinema goers in the late 1950’s, it was time for socks to be pulled up and some home grown horrors were required. Step forward renowned short film and documentary maker and founder of Cinémathèque Française, Georges Franju with his adaptation of the novel by Jean Redon.

As one would expect from the typically sophisticated French this isn’t a true horror per se but has enough shocking and chilling moments to warrant consideration. The concept is unsettling enough and one that has since proven fertile for other filmmakers – Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In is the most recent to owe a debt to Franju’s film, and of course Ang Lee’s Hollywood hokum that was Face/Off.

It is a tale about achieving beauty in the ugliest of ways; it is a crime story where the central crime is love; it is the idea of hope which provides the horror. At first it feels like a film noir with the ominous sight of Louise dumping a female body into a nearby river in the dead of night, with the police Inspector parrot (Alexandre Rignault) providing exposition about her missing face prior to Génessier identifying the body (which he does despite a missing face – but then he IS a surgeon!). Further clues of what is to comes are given when Génessier is giving a lecture on his varying attempts to complete a successful skin transplant without relying on 100% compatible DNA.

The mood slips towards the gothic when our initial belief that Génessier is experimenting on animals, as per the scores of dogs he has locked up in cages around his mansion property, is vastly different from the truth. Perhaps not a mad scientist as such, Génessier has the cavernous underground lair where he performs his illicit surgeries, the access to which is hidden behind fake walls.

This aspect was toned down in order to appease the German censors, while the blood loss during surgery was muted for the French censors; us Brits meant scenes of animal cruelty were absent. Even with these restrictions, Franju slips enough for the viewer to get the idea while bringing us to the very brink of sensibilities with some unnerving visuals. The face graft was ahead of its time for 1960 yet today still looks grotesque.

Fated to spend the rest of her life behind a mask, Christiane wants nothing more than to die, while torturing herself by phoning her fiancé Jacques (François Guérin) but being unable to speak to him, since she is supposed to be dead. Spending most of her screen time behind the mask or with her back to the camera Edith Scob pulls off a remarkably tender and emotional performance as Christiane.

With just her expressive eyes and almost balletic body movements at her disposal, Scob is captivating to watch, emanating a graceful beauty even with the expressionless camouflage obscuring her features. We do get a glimpse of her disfigured face but it is through the eyes of the groggy victim Edna, but even with the blurred view, it is enough to put you off your dinner.

A late cunning plan concocted by the police to catch Génessier in the act when he becomes the prime suspect in the increasing number of missing young women, brings a slightly lighter tone to the proceedings. Not that the idea isn’t plausible but it is so rushed through and plays into a number of conveniences to work.

Had it been a subtle plan that the viewer wasn’t in on from the beginning, one can almost guarantee that the tension and foreboding atmosphere would have pushed things to breaking point. As it is, Franju only gave us an 86 minute film, making such a luxury a mere fantasy. But what he does pack into that brisk running time is textbook chills and psychological drama which ends on a poetically tragic note, befitting its elegiac journey.

Eyes Without A Face is a curious beast in that it is very much a zeitgeist film yet is clearly ahead of its time and contradicts itself in seeming modern. While face transplants in today’s world are still very much a work in progress, the surgical scenes depicted here are authentic enough to make one wonder if they did exist – at least illicitly – back in the 60’s.

It is very much a work built around on mood and atmosphere flitting between the elegant and grotesque which contributes to its success in unnerving the viewer where today buckets of blood and frequent jump scares would be the order of the day.

This is one classic psychodrama you should let get under your skin.


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