The Return of the French: Eyes Without A Face (1960)

In the halcyon days of my doing this regularly – writing about genre movies, specifically – when I was a contributing member of the B-Masters Cabal, there was once going to be a roundtable of movies that we hadn’t gotten around to seeing, you know, stuff that should be essential to our critical works, something like a science-fiction fan having never seen Star Wars, except not that outrageous. In my case, it would have been Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, a fairly seminal horror movie.

Made in 1960, it has a plot that has been lifted several times since: a brilliant doctor doing research in tissue transplants has a terrible secret, hiding away his daughter, horribly disfigured in an auto accident which was apparently his fault. He and his assistant keep kidnapping young women and surgically removing their faces for transplant onto his daughter. Though, as mentioned, this is a plot that keeps being recycled throughout the 60s and into the 90s (witness Jess Franco’s remake Faceless), You get the indelible feeling during Eyes Without A Face that you’re definitely watching the original.

A brilliant, worldess beginning following the doctor’s assistant, Louise (Alida Valli) as she nervously dumps a young girl’s body in a river, is followed by a shrewdly low-key presentation of our basic story. Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) identifying the body as his missing daughter, then driving to his villa near his hospital, where we meet his unfortunate daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob).

It is in the person of Edith Scob that the movie achieves true transcendence. We see her true face only fleetingly, when one of Genessier’s transplants seem to have worked, but only temporarily. The rest of the time we only see the back of her head, or an amazing, expressionless mask (cast from Scob’s face) which gives her an eerie serenity – at least until you see her eyes. Scob’s figure, dressed in a Givenchy gown, gliding from room to room in her father’s mansion is one of the more haunting images in cinema, that has staying power long after viewing. I am constantly reminded of Mia Farrow, personally, but that’s my 60s upbringing, I think. So striking is Christiane’s appearance that John Carpenter points to it as a direct inspiration for Michael Myers’ mask in Halloween.

The genius of the storytelling is in its unfolding. We have no explanation for Louise’s introductory corpse-dumping, but we are pretty darn certain something untoward is afoot (the bizarre carnivale noir music by Maurice Jarre is another good hint. It reminds me of “Ernie’s Holiday Camp” from Tommy, though what to make of that I am not sure). The story’s setup is teased out over the next fifteen minutes or so with the slow unhurried deliberation of fate itself. For this we can largely thank the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac,  who had Diabolique and Vertigo to their recent credit.

The role of Louise, the assistant in all this is shady, vague. We know Genessier performed some sort of operation that “saved her face”, and she wears multiple strands of pearls as a choker to hide a scar across her throat. It’s a tantalizing plot thread that is never played out (frankly, I was expecting to find out she was Christiane’s mother, who supposedly died four years before, but that’s how my twisted brain works). She’s necessary to Genessier’s procedures, of course, worming her way into the young girls’ trust before convincing them to step into the villa, where they are unceremoniously chloroformed and strapped to the operating table.

It’s inevitable that we’re going to get at least one surgery scene in a movie about face transplants, and, even employing the comparatively primitive effects of 1960, it’s still squirm-inducing. Apparently at its premiere in the Edinburgh Film Festival, it caused people to faint; subsequently released in the US under the title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, the scene is abbreviated with an optical zoom, but passed muster with the European censors pretty easily.

There’s another cut in that US version, and it has nothing to do with gore; it’s a scene in Genessier’s hospital, where the doctor is examining a young boy with a severe neurological affliction. He is nothing but gentle and caring in his interactions with the boy and his obviously distraught mother. That’s probably one of the deepest veins of horror tapped in Eyes; Genessier and Louise are decent people, whose love for Christiane drives them to do despicable, terrible things. Apparently the American distributor didn’t want to confuse the audience with such concepts.

Franju et Scob.

Genessier and Louise aren’t working from some meticulously planned villain plot, either, they’re obviously improvising as they go along. The first victim, who dies on the operating table is (as we’ve seen) disposed of by Louise in the opening; the second victim (who supplies the temporarily successful graft) survives, and her two kidnappers are at something of a loss as to what to do with her. She solves that by attempting to escape and either accidentally killing herself or deliberately committing suicide, we’ll never know. But their increasing desperation is becoming obvious, just as Christiane’s depression and desire to be allowed to simply die become more and more vocal.

This how Franju, when his producer (who was determined to prove French cinema could handle the realm of horror just as well as fantasy) advised him to avoid blood to prevent riling up the French censors, animal torture to avoid upsetting the British, and mad doctors to avoid pissing off the Germans… made a movie featuring all three. Franju insisted the movie was not about horror, it was about anguish… not only the anguish of the victims, but the anguish of decent people driven to extremes, and the anguish of the innocent person in whose name atrocities are committed. Eyes Without A Face, so simple on the surface, proves itself increasingly complex the more it is considered, and that is truly the mark of a masterpiece.