EYES WITHOUT A FACE. French horror of the soul
…and those that may have escaped the notice of genre enthusiasts until now. It’s enough to mention its first place for the best non-English language horror film on a recent list compiled by the Playlist website and the cover of Jonathan Rigby’s new book, Euro Gothic: Classics of Continental Horror Cinema, a historian specializing in the horror film genre. The book features a picture of the heroine in a white mask from the French masterpiece. Our Mariusz Czernic also distinguished the thriller directed by Franju as one of the best horror films from the old continent, and the influence of this work can be noticed, more or less, in relatively recent creations like Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon.
Nonetheless, Eyes Without a Face from 1960 still remains a work admired more by connoisseurs of cinematic classics than by fans of solid scares. On one hand, its age might deter some due to its vintage; on the other, a contemporary viewer might not even consider it a horror film. While individual elements suggest such a genre classification, the overall impression is something entirely different.
In the opening scene of Eyes Without a Face, we observe a car driving at night, first through a forest road, and then through a city. The car is driven by a somewhat fearful woman, and in the back seat, there is another person dressed in a male coat and hat, whose face is disturbingly… Well, it’s difficult to specify her condition. We catch only a brief glimpse, just for a second, but it looks as if the passenger has no skin on her face. When the car stops, the driver retrieves the unconscious or already dead woman and disposes of her in a nearby river. Several days later, the victim is retrieved and identified by her father, a respected surgeon, Doctor Génessier. The girl had a severe car accident some time ago, which disfigured her face, hence the initial difficulties in identification by the police, although her father’s unequivocal confirmation closes the case. However, during the funeral, it turns out that the woman who drowned the girl is the personal secretary of the doctor, Louise. They are both involved in a particularly gruesome procedure of kidnapping young girls and attempting to transplant their faces onto Génessier’s living daughter, Christiane. She is imprisoned in her own home, forced to wear a mask to hide her gruesome appearance.
The adaptation of Jean Redon’s book, which served as the basis for the film, was handled by the renowned writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, already well-known in the world of cinema. Their crime stories formed the basis for two famous mystery thrillers based on the gradual uncovering of a mystery: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). However, Eyes Without a Face is quite different. Franju is not interested in the mystery – he quickly reveals all the cards to the audience, leaving a trio of characters living in a grand villa and their guests on his narrative chessboard. Both those they brought and those entirely uninvited. Both groups are innocent, but not the hosts. However, there’s a lack of psychologically deep characters here because the director operates at the intersection of literal and allegorical, reality and dream, creating a world with all the foundations of authenticity but undermining it with fairy-tale-like images.
The realism in his work appears to be illusory, much like the simplified scene of the skin removal surgery, although the Frenchman doesn’t spare us the most gruesome details. However, when Christiane (played by Edith Scob, known from Holy Motors and Brotherhood of the Wolf) appears on the screen in her white, emotionless face mask, the whole reality seems to be shaken. Here, we see an almost angelic figure, dressed in a beautiful silk gown, moving in an almost imperceptible way. Her delicate voice and large, sincere eyes only intensify the impression of innocence and kindness personified. Unable to leave the house, she appears as a princess locked in a tower, waiting for her knight in shining armor (specifically her fiancé, who believes she is dead). She’s a character straight out of a fairy tale, completely at odds with the criminal plot. This also applies to Maurice Jarre’s music, which from the very beginning challenges the viewer because it has no associations with horror. The moment of hesitation comes during the opening credits of Eyes Without a Face, as the carnival-like sounds stand in opposition to what we see on the screen: a nighttime car trip to dispose of a body.
Franju constructs the horror not only from seemingly incongruent elements but with a dry and matter-of-fact approach to the mad scientist and his experiments. This approach deprives Dr. Génessier (played by Pierre Brasseur) of any redeeming qualities – even though his goal is to give his daughter a new face, his love for his child seems absent. Louise (played by Alida Valli) appears similarly detached, seemingly interested in Christiane’s well-being only superficially, even though she shows more maternal care than the girl’s own father. This may result from the simple fact that her face was once reconstructed by Dr. Génessier, and she sees in Christiane an extension of herself or is driven by gratitude toward the brilliant surgeon. Convinced not only of his capabilities but also of the philosophy she shares with him, where the end justifies the means and the sacrifice offered on the altar of science will not be in vain, she becomes the enticing kidnapper of young girls. Although beneath Christiane’s youthful mask, there may indeed lurk a macabre visage, the real monsters here turn out to be her father and his assistant, both madmen who justify their actions through a child’s tragedy.
What makes it even more striking is the director’s approach. Despite the overtly sensational plot, he creates a poetic atmosphere, blending a realistic order with the dreamlike. One doesn’t clash with the other because the narrative construction and the starting point evoke horror, fantasy, and even science fiction. Franju, who previously worked on short films, successfully married the truth of documentary with a vision close to surrealism, giving the whole a unique yet coherent character (similarly in his later work, including the sensational, harking back to the beginnings of cinema Judex – Outlaw of 1963). Although he didn’t like to label Eyes Without a Face as horror, he undoubtedly drew from the benefits of the genre tradition, unafraid to use shock effects – viewers fainted during the surgery scene at the premiere, and the ending also brings a few graphic and nightmarish deaths. Today, these images may not shock anyone, but the strange and unsettling atmosphere hovering over the story still affects those who associate horror cinema with more than just supernatural threats and gallons of blood.
Perhaps Andrzej Kołodynski is right when he calls Eyes Without a Face “pure” horror cinema. Christiane is dead to the world, but she also sees herself as someone no longer alive, unreal, but in this way, above all human laws. During the transportation of another victim, the professor and his assistant do not see the girl, but she allows herself to be seen by the kidnapped girl, who reacts with screams and fainting. Génessier’s daughter, like an angel of death, glides through the corridors of the empty villa, not interfering with her father’s experiments, but ensuring that her face will be the last thing the victims see. However, the director leaves us without an answer to the question of why, in the finale, Christiane decides to take action, takes up the scalpel, and makes use of it. Has she understood that a return to the world of the living is now impossible? Or perhaps, on the contrary, that she is something more than just the titular eyes without a face, not just a silent observer of horrifying events. The last time we see her, she appears reconciled with her fate, free, even beautiful. If Franju’s work is horror, it is primarily a horror of the soul, where brutality is motivated by supposed love, and the act of murder can be seen as a manifestation of grace. Or perhaps madness? It’s hard to say – her eyes alone do not reveal it.