Looking back on Georges Franju’s pioneering and poetic body horror film.
When we talk about influential horror movies, Eyes Without A Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage) is rarely mentioned. Yet this film not only pioneered the whole ‘face transplant’ genre that inspired Jess Franco (who used the theme on both his groundbreaking The Awful Dr Orloff and the later Faceless) and continued with British shocker Corruption, but it was also one of the earliest films to feature the graphic gore that would become the norm for the genre in the next couple of decades. While Hammer was experimenting with bloodletting a few years earlier, their efforts now seem tame; in contrast, the surgical gore of Georges Franju’s 1960 movie remains as startlingly gruesome as ever and is rendered palatable only by the fact that the film is shot in black and white. Herschell Gordon Lewis might have invented the splatter film three years later with Blood Feast, but this movie lays out the template for the medical gore of later directors like David Cronenberg.
The most interesting aspect of the film is the way it blurs genre. Although ostensibly a horror film (as admitted by the director himself), the film also features elements of film noir and the related but very different police procedural, not to mention melodrama. It’s perhaps this mix of genre elements that so bewildered critics at the time, who were almost unanimous in their dismissal of the film. Perhaps the problem has been that the film has traditionally occupied a strange no man’s land within genre filmmaking, sitting somewhere between the arthouse and the grindhouse. At the time of the initial release, the film was seen as being very much a part of the latter by highbrow critics. Things were certainly not helped by a dubbed version in the US – on the bottom end of a double feature with The Manster, no less! – as The Horror Chamber of Dr Faustus. There is, needless to say, no Dr Faustus in the original version. The critical trashing of this film is another reminder that when modern-day critics line up to dismiss a film like a herd of sheep, history might well prove them wrong. But equally, the film was often seen as too arty to be a horror film by the sort of fans who until relatively recently have been quick to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit into the bog-standard horror tradition as not being part of the genre. Today, of course, Eyes Without A Face might be seen as ‘intelligent’ or ‘elevated’ horror by the same sort of fans who have a strange self-loathing and shame at enjoying the genre on face value and so have to seek the approval of the critical mainstream for the genre works they will consider ‘important’. Or it might not, as the film does not flaunt its intelligence or wallow in self-indulgent pretension.
Certainly, it is hard to see why anyone, even in 1960 when this was unquestionably sensationally shocking, would want to rubbish Eyes Without A Face. Even if only seen as a genre potboiler, it is a superior example – and in fact, the film is much more than that. The plot is pretty simple – brilliant surgeon Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is on a mission to replace the face of his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), which has been hideously disfigured in an accident. Using the body of a woman killed in an accident to cover up her disappearance by declaring the dead woman to be Christiane, he carries out these pioneering efforts in a somewhat unethical manner, using assistant Louise (Alida Valli) to lure suitable young women back to his fortress-like mansion, where they are chloroformed before having their faces removed and transplanted onto the deformed girl. Unfortunately, these efforts continually fail, the new tissue being rejected within a few days and becoming itself grotesquely mutated. Oblivious to the psychological effect that this is having on Christiane, Génessier continues with his efforts, even as the police – alerted to the fact that several blue-eyed young women have vanished – begin to close in with their investigation.
In many ways, this might seem to be the archetypal mad doctor story, with Génessier so driven by what might have initially been an admirable mission that he can no longer see the human cost of his experiments. It’s clear to the viewer that these transplants will never work, that his methods are flawed and the science simply not there – yet he continues, driven by his own guilt (Christiane was disfigured in a car crash caused by his own reckless driving) more than any concern for the effects that continual hope met by failure are having on his daughter, who is clearly becoming more and more unstable. Forced to wear a mask that would render her blankly emotionless if it wasn’t for her eyes (Scob does a fine acting performance under these difficult conditions), the girl has long since lost hope with her father’s experiments. She has also lost her mind, made to live a secretive existence, unable to even let her fiancé Jacques (François Guérin) know she is alive.
In the middle of these two is Louise, committed to the doctor after he salvaged her own disfigured face (we are not told how, but presumably the damage was considerably less), and so blind to the human destruction that he is causing. Completing a perverse family unit that dominates the film. Only the actions of the police – who are shown in a realistic manner, not exactly incompetent but essentially clueless as to the cause of the murders and ultimately willing to let a young woman be put in danger simply to try and get some evidence about the killings – take us away from this claustrophobic atmosphere, and it is understandable that after being driven mad, not by her initial disfigurement, as we see in other films, but by the continued efforts to return her to ‘normality’, Christiane ultimately rebels against the family. The film allows her to take her revenge, and it is notable that she first kills her surrogate mother – the woman who has been facilitating Génessier’s obsession. The film ends ambiguously – we have no idea what the future holds for Christiane, and whether she will continue to be a victim, become a monster or simply vanish into the night.
What’s interesting about Eyes Without a Face, when you write down the basic plot, is that it is no different from many a mad scientist film – numerous Boris Karloff movies, not to mention the likes of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, are driven by similar stories of obsessive guilt and growing insanity. As deliriously entertaining as a lot of those films are though, few even come close to matching the emotional and personal tragedy that drives this film, and it’s this as much as the surgical horror and gruesome narrative that drives the film and makes it so exceptional.
Franju keeps this story tight and powerful, his noir stylings and moments of poetic beauty being suddenly disturbed by classic mad scientist horror visuals. The uncompromising gore is literally clinical, as we see him removing a face in surprising detail – I can only imagine the effect that this would have had on unsuspecting audiences at the time. This plunge into graphic horror is unexpected and could (and has) derail a lesser film, but here it is handled with care and doesn’t seem gratuitous. Of course, Franju had form in shocking audiences with graphic images – his slaughterhouse documentary film Le Sang des Bêtes in 1949 had already tested the limits.
Graphic horror aside, this is certainly not the exploitation film that it was initially sold as, even though Franju is more than happy to maintain genre convention while playing with expectations. The result is a curious, unsettling masterpiece of weird cinema that feels less dated and more unsettlingly relevant than many of its contemporaries.
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