by Matt Levine
If Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter is the most viciously beautiful fairy tale in the history of movies, Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face is a close second. The contradictory tone of Franju’s film—it’s chilly and tragic, lurid and graceful—is an essential component of its ethereally haunting tone, a lingering unease as melancholy as it is terrifying. Like most of the best horror movies, it holds the awful corruptibility of man in one hand and an empathetic pity in the other, taking advantage of the horror genre’s potential to show human beings at their best and worst extremes.
Director: Georges Franju
Producer: Jules Borkon
Writers: Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet, Jean Redon (novel), Pierre Gascar (dialogue)
Cinematographer: Eugen Schüfftan
Editor: Gilbert Natot
Music: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel, Edith Scob, François Guérin, Alexandre Rignault
Premiere: January 11, 1960 (France)
US Theatrical Release: October 24, 1962 (as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus)
US Distributor: Lopert Pictures Corporation, Rialto Pictures (rerelease)
The story is a pulpy blend of mad-scientist butchery and old-fashioned damsel-in-distress scares. The stoic, gravel-voiced Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a noted expert on heterograft surgery, is called in to identify the corpse of his vanished daughter, whose face is badly disfigured; he claims the dead woman at the morgue is his daughter Cristiane, thus prolonging the uncertainty of another man, Mr. Tessot, whose daughter has also disappeared.
When Génessier returns to his Gothic mansion in the suburbs of Paris, however, the film offers its first sadistic twist: Cristiane (Edith Scob) is in fact alive, detained by her father and forced to wear a mask to cover her badly scarred face (the result of a car accident while her father was driving). The previous scene between Dr. Génessier and Tessot thus becomes heartbreaking in retrospect, as we realize the woman in the morgue was likely Tessot’s daughter, though he’ll go on clinging to the hope that she’s alive (the first of many instances in which the film’s chills are rooted in relatable human despair). Génessier, when he’s not performing medical tests on the army of dogs he’s chained up in a subterranean kennel, has taken to abducting beautiful, blue-eyed girls with the help of his assistant, Louise (Alida Valli), and attempting surgeries in order to remove their faces and graft them onto his daughter. No surgery has yet been successful, though this only intensifies Génessier’s madness and deepens Cristiane’s sorrow.
Dr. Génessier remains an enigma practically the entire film: while there are glimmers of his pain and tenderness (particularly in regards to an injured young boy in his hospital who needs life-threatening brain surgery), he seems to treat Cristiane more as a captor than a father, and we never learn of a particular trauma (if there are any) that may have led him to view human beings as surgical-experiment guinea pigs. The character is emphasized more as a mad scientist than a haunted, lonely father, but regardless he’s a villain who demonstrates the frailty of human will and decency. Cristiane remains the film’s most poignant and sympathetic character, especially during a climax in which she releases all of Dr. Génessier’s lab animals, unable to withstand any more of her father’s cruelty—an action which leads to an unforgettable final image of morbid grace and an ironic, grisly fate for Dr. Génessier.
Eyes without a Face was produced by Jules Borkon, a moderately successful producer who had noted the popularity of the contemporary Hammer horror films in both France and the UK and sought to initiate a new string of horror productions in France. For his first project, he bought the rights to Jean Redon’s novel and enlisted the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac to adapt the screenplay; Boileau-Narcejac, as they were known, had also the written novels on which Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Clouzot’s Diabolique were based. The casually dreamlike nature and elegant depiction of feverish human desire from those two projects continue on to Eyes without a Face.
Finally, Borkon convinced Georges Franju, who had become celebrated for a series of candid, troubling documentaries during the 1950s, to make Eyes without a Face his second fictional feature. Franju, a longtime admirer of such fantastical directors as Méliès and Feuillade, eagerly agreed, hoping to bring legitimacy to a horror genre that was often deemed inferior by French critics (a disparagement that was obvious from Eyes without a Face’s middling critical response in 1960). The one-of-a-kind Franju, with his blend of documentary bluntness and his fondness for outsized stories, was the perfect choice to helm the film: it’s as though a photojournalist has stumbled into a gorgeous nightmare, observing everything with both morbid fascination and abject disgust. One of the most unsettling examples is a series of still photographs, edited into a montage through time-lapse dissolves, depicting yet another failed heterograft as Cristiane’s initially pristine new face devolves into a mass of pustules and dead skin. The moment is both tragic and disturbing, though it’s conveyed by Franju in a series of nondescript frontal photographs that might have been taken by a medical examiner.
Of course, Franju leans heavily on his collaborations with cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan and musician Maurice Jarre. Schüfftan had shot a number of majestically beautiful films since the silent era, including Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, for which Schüfftan developed a special effect process utilizing miniature sets and mirrors to illustrate that film’s futuristic city. In Eyes without a Face, Schüfftan films much of the action with clinical detachment (even a bloodstained murder late in the film is composed of simply alternating medium shots) while sudden jolts in perspective provide truly unnerving scares. The best example may be a low-angle POV from the perspective of a woman strapped to the operating table: she awakes from sedation to see an unmasked Cristiane standing over her, glimpsing her disfigured face from a drug-induced haze. Maurice Jarre, meanwhile, relies upon two musical motifs, a jaunty waltz and a more somber theme for Cristiane, aurally conveying the movie’s sad and terrifying tone (much as he would do for Franju’s Judex remake three years later).
Somehow, Eyes without a Face made it past French censorship boards in early 1960, though it still generated a great deal of outrage and traumatized audiences when it was released. At its first film festival showings, many viewers walked out or even fainted, especially during a lengthy heterograft scene that unflinchingly observes Dr. Génessier’s surgery: the special effects are primitive but the effect is jaw-dropping as the doctor removes a poor victim’s face, with no visual cutaways or musical score to provide respite. Just as disturbing is the twisted climax of the film, in which a kind of brutal poetic justice forces Dr. Génessier to experience a just retaliation for his savagery. In terms of onscreen gore Eyes without a Face is considerably graphic, but it’s so effective not because of its violence but because of its impassive tone and emotional undercurrents: we’re not simply seeing another mad serial killer, but an insane egomaniac whose experiments are filmed with icy matter-of-factness.
1960 might be deemed the year in which modern horror began: within four months of each other, Eyes without a Face, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, and Hitchcock’s Psycho were released in France, the UK, and the US respectively. Cumulatively, these three movies changed the way audiences thought about hero and victim, man and woman, author and audience. All three are groundbreaking in their own way, but Eyes without a Face might be the most unshakeable, a grisly fairy tale that somehow found its way into our own real world (with its universal human weaknesses). Franju explained it best when he said of his film’s tone, “it’s a quieter mood than horror…more internal, more penetrating.” Indeed, Eyes without a Face was one of the instigators of a great tradition in French horror—continuing on through Repulsion (1965) and Inside (2007), among others—that weds intense genre thrills to a bleak portrait of humanity in disrepair. The scariest movies, Franju reminds us, are often the ones that emphasize what’s so human about horror.