Smile… Not too much.
The pencil moves along and around the contours of the head. The thin black line creates a guide, both for the surgeon and the scalpel. As the two ends of the mark finally meet, the circle is complete. Outside the lead barrier is the remainder, the rest of the victim’s body. She was/is a young woman from the town, a local university student looking for lodging. Inside the demarcation is the prize — pristine, pale, and perfect. As the doctor requests his knife and the cutting begins, the skin barely bleeds. The incision moves below the chin, up along the outer edge of the cheek and across the flawless forehead. The physician pauses. He asks for a wipe across his own furrowed brow. The rest taken, the breath now regulated, he continues. The cut is restarted and eventually meets its beginning. A long, thin piece of metal, bent slightly at an odd angle, is offered. It is placed gently under the upper layer of dermis, and with a series of gentle but firm movements, the skin is separated from the musculature. Under and around the blade continues to maneuver, the slightest amount of blood beginning to seep out from under the peeled flesh.
The operation progresses. As a new section is loosened and stripped, forceps are placed along the folds and flaps. Eventually, the doctor completes his monstrous task. The entire stratum is ready for removal. But first, he must address the eyes. Indeed, the windows of the soul still hold onto the soft tissue surrounding them. The pencil comes out again. Sockets are outlines. The scalpel does its job. Soon, it is ready, prepared to take its new place. The procedure, as of this point, is a success. But the real test is yet to come. For you see, Dr. Génessier wishes to transplant this item upon the disfigured form of his beloved daughter. Though he has been unsuccessful in the past, he prays this time he’s accounted for all the possible problems. He wants his child back. He wants her beauty restored. But in his filthy, fouled hands, all he now holds is another person’s façade. And staring up from the operating table are Eyes Without a Face.
Dr. Génessier is a respected doctor who runs a clinic on the outskirts of Paris. Several years before he lost his wife, and recently, tragedy has revisited his house. While driving with his daughter one dark night, he had an accident in which Christiane was horribly mutilated, her face grossly disfigured. Hoping to help his beloved child in any way he can, the physician has developed a theory. Using stray dogs as his test cases, he has been successful with full tissue grafts, the replacement of entire sections of skin with new, donated dermis. In an attempt to make his daughter whole, Dr. Génessier has resorted to kidnapping and murder to find his human test cases. With the help of his housekeeper and confidante, Louise, local girls are lured to Génessier’s plush manor and drugged. There, their faces are removed in painstaking operations. The skin masks are then placed on Christiane’s corrupted visage, in hopes that the flesh will take hold and grow firm. Sadly, as in most instances after the transplant, Christiane’s body rejects the new face and the decaying, rotting results have to be removed. As a consequence of his lack of success, Génessier’s daughter must wear a blank, emotionless mask to cover up her scars.
As if his failed experiments aren’t bad enough, the doctor now faces two new problems. The first comes by way of the law. The police are discovering mutilated bodies — washed up near the river, dumped along the side of the road — and there are hints that Dr. Génessier may have some connection to the corpses. Up until now, the doctor has managed to keep the authorities at bay. But his hold is tenuous at best. The other issue is Christiane herself. She is slowly going insane from the isolation and disappointment of her life as a human guinea pig. Her actions are growing more erratic. She wanders around the house, lifeless and blank. She calls her ex-fiancé, Jacques on the phone, simply to hear his familiar voice. And she’s grown more depressed over the many failed attempts at restoring her looks. With detectives hot on his trail and his daughter coming unglued, Dr. Génessier tries to stay calm. But when pressing the moral and legal limits of science for the betterment of a single, selfish interest, the results are surely going to be disastrous…and deadly.
Horror films, by their very nature, function as escape in the most primal of forms. They offer a chance for an audience to sit back, relax, and allow their instinctual sense of distress to overwhelm and startle them. As the dread grows thicker and more palpable, the body begins to shed its inhibitions and warrants. By the end of the saga, with the climax pushing the blood and adrenaline through the body at an alarming rate, the entire internal circuitry is alive! Then the lights go on and there is relief. There is catharsis, release, and a dispersion of pent-up emotions and feelings. It is a kind of therapy. It is a daredevil thrill ride. It is a throwback to the very essence of our humanity.
More times than not, the fright flick is a simple statement, a competition between killer and victim, between monster and mankind, for control of who lives and who dies. Occasionally, important social topics can be tossed into the ghouls and goblins. The Exorcist is more about the growing disconnect between single parents and terrifying teen angst than channeling a challenge by Satan. Hellraiser showcases the ultimate betrayal within a marriage — a wife seeking comfort in the bloody, zombified corpse of her husband’s brother. Even something as recent as 28 Days Later wants to warn us about the poisons within — the out-of-control military, animal experimentation, human rage — more than shocking us with the living dead dynamic.
Then there are horror films that work on our psychology, playing with the possibilities and concepts we’re comfortable with, only to twist and subvert them. Directors as diverse as David Lynch, Dario Argento, and David Cronenberg have all fashioned fear out of the circumvention of normal human understanding, from the disgusting dissertation on parenthood known as Eraserhead to the doctors-as-doppelgangers delirium of Dead Ringers. Yet when it comes to being the king of cranial corruption, Georges Franju has no equal. In 1959 — while American movies were focusing on monsters and atomic mutations — Franju was inventing the modern mindf*ck fright film. Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage in the native tongue) is one of the landmarks of horror for everything it does, and for all the things it avoids. With the grisly story of a surgeon obsessed with restoring his daughter’s disfigured face, one would expect a gruesome, blood-soaked saga of body snatching, evisceration, and sin. But Eyes Without a Face is a far more complicated and cogent film than that. It wants to discuss issues inherent in both science and the parent/child relationship, as well as focus on forging forceful fear factors.
On the most fundamental basis, Eyes Without a Face is Frankenstein without the monster. Or maybe, it’s more of an incidental look at the creation of a modern Prometheus in parenthood. It’s definitely a
tale of science perverted and ego outsized. In the cold, clinical, but still highly compassionate personage of Dr. Génessier, Franju sets up the first of several strict juxtapositions, a directorial device utilized to create both tension and torture. Here is a man well known for his charitable work, and a clinic that has a remarkable success rate with its curative powers. But there is indeed much more to this measured man of science. There is the secret chateau, the foreboding home that hides his most hideous secrets. As he heals the sick, he lies to the police. As he prescribes sedatives and salves, he’s cutting up college girls in his hidden lair. On the outside, he has the smart, serene look of a man of learning. On the inside, he is a raging torrent of disappointment and deranged desire. Between the doctor and Louise, the serene servant who also commits the most heinous of crimes, we have two villains who possess none of the necessary nemesis elements of fright films past. Both Louise and Dr. Génessier give off the aura of human empathy and settled sanity. But when thrust into the painful passion of helping the mangled Christiane regain her face, this couple becomes a study in startling contrasts. Using friendship, familiarity, and force, they befriend and then butcher young women, performing sick acts of surgery for the sake of a single goal.
As described in the opening of this review, the centerpiece of Eyes Without a Face is the mid-movie operation sequence, a riveting and revolting slice of slaughter that must have sent the crowds scurrying in the early ’60s. The step-by-step, slice-by-slice removal of a young woman’s face is violent and vicious enough to make Ed Gein and his cinematic counterpart, Leatherface, extremely happy. Though it’s realized in Franju’s black and white cinematography, it still has the ability to sicken and unsettle — especially when Génessier grabs that long metal prod and starts systematically loosening the flesh from the female’s basic bone structure. By the time we close in to see the skin mask removed in an agonizingly languid take, Franju has accomplished his goal.
A basic reading of the plot would suggest some manner of mean-spirited melodrama, a soggy story of a devoted dad trying everything humanly — and inhumanely — possible to help his child. But Franju wants you to understand just what such devotion means. Though we witness the drugging, the mortifying mutilation of dogs (only suggested, not actually shown), and the laser-sharp focus on his medical objectives, we don’t really understand just how hideous Dr. Génessier’s calling really is until we watch him tear off a human face. When we learn that this is one of several attempts to address his daughter’s disfigurement, the undercurrent of alarm is enhanced. This is a man who will stop at nothing and who will do anything to restore his child. We need to see just how outlandish and extreme his methods will become. Thanks to one of the most ghastly scenes in modern movie macabre, we get the disturbing idea.
Who Dr. Génessier is and what he stands for are all part of Franju’s overriding conceit for Eyes Without a Face. As the title more or less suggests, this is a film concerned with identity and the lack thereof. The entire narrative uses the theme of identification, of who people are and what they are made of, to craft a dissertation on the importance of such a point of personal and professional reference. Looking at all the aspects of the film — the doctor who appears to be a charitable godsend, but actually spends his nights in serial killer-like mayhem; the police who make a living out of deciphering the identity of washed-up corpses, only to try and connect them to specific crimes; the housekeeper who plays both benefactor and assassin — we see that Franju enjoys the double layer of meaning within his characters and circumstances.
Everyone in the film serves double, or even triple purposes. Louise is nurse, confidante and co conspirator. The ex-fiancé Jacques is business partner (he works with Dr. Génessier), lost lover, and aid to the police. Perhaps in Christiane and her father we have the clearest examples of cross-interpersonal purposes. Dr. Génessier feels guilt as a father, healer, surgeon, specialist, and driver (he caused the accident that disfigured his child), and uses a persona of strict gravity to hide his inner contempt. Christiane is a monster, a maiden, and a victim. She is a vital human being and a shamed shadow of her former self. She’s a reminder of the good times of the past and a constant source of criminally inspired culpability to those she lives with. It is this battle between bickering and battling human personalities and personas that gives Eyes Without a Face a great deal of its uneasy
psychological weight. We never know whom we’re going to meet when a particular character arrives onscreen. And this is one of the reasons why the film is so effective in its casual creepiness.
Visuals are also very important to Eyes Without a Face. Indeed, it can be argued that this film is more of a throwback to older, silent film ideas in which imagery told the tale more effectively than words. Franju wants to create specific icons, images that will stand out and resonate beyond their moment in the film. He knows they will taint issues and individuals later on. Once we’ve witnessed the hideous handiwork of the doctor, we begin to worry for all other female characters who show up in the film. When Christiane has a sole, soft-focus moment where her real, fractured face is revealed, her deteriorating mental state suddenly comes into crystal clarity. All of her odd moments, the late night phone calls and spectral-like glides around the house, start to make sense. As a masked mirage for most of the film, Christiane’s camouflaged face, a delicate and pristine creation of porcelain doll plainness, leaves an incredible impression. As we see the blank beauty and manufactured polish, we start to wonder if this entire enterprise is not some mad delusion. When she is temporarily “cured” and given a new, flesh façade, Christiane is hauntingly similar to the mask she’s been wearing. She is less than human, a nearly flawless flower that her father is desperate to preserve.
The performance by Edith Scob, a combination of grace and ghoul, is one of the most amazing elements of Eyes Without a Face. Spending most of her screen time behind an expressionless plate, she must convey all her emotion through her eyes and her body movements. Lithe, limber, and very laconic, Christiane troubles her home like a pretty poltergeist; a sad, simple shape longing to be normal again. It’s these pictographic elements that make Eyes Without a Face so memorable, moving the movie beyond the basic scare tactics of horror films.
From the surgical set piece to the clever use of a montage of photographs to illustrate Christiane’s disintegrating post-operative face, Franju was ahead of his time with Eyes Without a Face, both as a storyteller and as a visionary. In 1959, most horror films were dealing with outrageous elements and even more illogical circumstances to sell their scares. No one, save for Hitchcock, was looking at horror from a serious, adult format. But Franju obviously understands how much power there is in treating his subject with deep and abiding respect. From a narrative standpoint, his film is a study in simple construction and plotting. We see a crime at the start of the story, and then it is connected to Génessier (although not how you think). Then we move through the entire murder/mutilation angle before the third act action draws its denouement.
Directorially, Franju never cheats the audience. Everything is out in the open in Eyes Without a Face, never thrust to the background or hinted at in suggestion. Surely the film has its secrets (the experiments with the dogs are only hinted at), and obviously not all the horror is played out immediately. But what Franju is attempting is to drag the fright film out of the realm of the supernatural and the bizarre and frame it within the everyday world of contemporary France. There is never a desire to blame all the badness on spirits or demons. Franju knows that man is the ultimate evil in the world, and it is via the hand of the human that all the wickedness and destruction occurs. It is easy to blame acts of debasement and immorality on unseen entities bloated with the power to pervert. It is another thing all together to see and champion said tendency toward sin in one’s fellow man. This is what Eyes Without a Face is illustrating. We may be able to act without impunity, or a “face,” but our souls (which our eyes are the windows into) will always know our betrayal.
It is this matter-of-fact, straightforward approach in combination with horribly misguided motivations that makes Eyes Without a Face one of the classics of contemporary horror. It is a building block, a stepping-stone between the Universal idiom of beasts and baddies and the modern notions of terror around every real-world corner. It lays the foundation for numerous innovations within the genre as it utilizes old dark house Gothic parameters to meet its needs. Though some may consider it tame by the Raimi / Romero/ Argento standards of blood and guts, its mixture of the beautiful with the baneful, the gorgeous with the grotesque, is more unsettling than any overblown gorefest.
Though Georges Franju was working within a well-known format in his native France (Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the famous writing duo behind Diabolique and Vertigo, crafted the crime story here) he was also attempting to expand the movie macabre, moving it out of the unreal regions of life and existence and into the concrete jungle of the actual world we live in. From its moody, magnificent look to an ending that suggests both destruction and rebirth, Eyes Without a Face is a monumental achievement in the arena of psychological horror. It shocks as it soothes, simultaneously confronting and comforting us. It is that rarity from the early part of cinema’s history, and yet it resonates more readily with a present-day audience than perhaps it did with individuals in its time. After all, back in the ’50s, we were mostly unaware of the evil going on right under our noses. Today, we practically wallow in it. Eyes Without a Face is a fascinating, frightening experience.
One of the areas in which almost all DVD manufacturers seem to have problems is in the recreation of stark, atmospheric monochrome masters of past productions. Either the contrasts are way off, making the movie more an exercise in gray gradients, or they are so sharp that the noir seems to be battling itself. Thankfully, Criterion understands the magic in black and white workmanship, having successfully transferred such contrasting canvases as Knife in the Water, The Honeymoon Killers, and Mamma Roma. Eyes Without a Face is another masterpiece of remastering. The image here is nothing short of spectacular. The balance between the two divergent hues is amazingly crisp and detailed. Director Franju’s compositions and framing are beautifully maintained in the 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, and overall, this is an amazing, moody showpiece of shadows and light. Soundwise, the film is equally impressive. The Dolby Digital Mono is clean and clear, and the French subtitles do a good job of capturing the sinister sense of what is transpiring.
Ever the expert on extra content, Criterion outdoes itself on Eyes Without a Face, though many may feel the company has substantially shortchanged the collector. True, the only supplements offered are a 22-minute short film on slaughterhouses (made in1949), an archival interview with director Franju about making movies, a brief bit from Les Grands-peres du Crime focusing on writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, and some standard trailers and still gallery material. Yet every element here is a perfect companion to the film, providing both context and clarity to Franju’s philosophy and his visionary desires.
Perhaps the most gruesome item included is the documentary short on abattoirs called Blood of the Beasts. Through the use of expert camerawork, an amazing eye for images, and a truly intriguing setting, we see numerous animals — horses, sheep, cows — systematically slaughtered and gutted. The footage is frank, honest, and repulsive. But it is also part of Franju’s plan. He wants to show us that the entire world is made up of hidden facets of fiendishness, be it in the rather routine gore of a food factory or, with Eyes, the secret experiments of a deranged doctor. He explains some of this theory in the interview featurette. Appearing on what looks like the set of a French Shock Theater TV presentation, the director is candid and forthright about his desire to disgust as well as delight. Boileau and Narcejac are equally eloquent in a very short snippet from Les Grands-peres. Both are well up in age, but still find the presence of mind to detail how they arrive at their collaborations and how their style affects their stories — Eyes Without a Face being one of the more celebrated. Together with the marketing and memorabilia sections, Criterion proves, once again, that no one surpasses its ability to properly supplement a film.
Nowadays, no one blinks at the notions of skin peels, dermabrasions, and chemical facials. We live in a society where shows like nip/tuck and Extreme Makeover celebrate the most grotesque purposeful manipulation of the face we would ever imagine. People undergo horrendous procedures to make themselves appear younger or more attractive, and we never once think of the physicians behind the scalpel as being anything other than saints in surgical garb (to steal a line from the “Yankee Doodle Doctor”). If he had only set up practice in 1999 instead of 1959, Dr. Génessier would be viewed as an innovator, not a butcher. True, there is that whole kidnapping and killing angle to his practice, but in pursuit of the higher goals of beauty and benefice, there would probably be some in society that could and would forgive him. But back in his time, the good doctor was a devious madman, a maniac obsessed with bringing at least part of his family back to normalcy — no matter what the price. In his passion, he found his path and in his attempts to aid he discovered his atrocities.
If director Georges Franju is known for nothing else, Eyes Without a Face would be a formative, fantastic point of pride. As delicate and mannered as it is mean and vicious, this classic French fright film leaves a lasting, disturbing impression. The pleading, needing eyes of the physician’s daughter tells the entire story. While it may be difficult living without a recognizable visage, what’s being done in the name of her repair is far, far worse.