Before the era of the slasher film, horror films didn’t get any sicker or more twisted than this early 60’s French gem which tracks the devilish attempts of a plastic surgeon to kidnap, drug and steal the faces of innocent women to graft onto his facially-deformed daughter.
Eyes Without a Face (2013) dir. Georges Franju
Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel
By Alan Bacchus
For the first half of this picture co-writer/director Georges Franju spends all his energy building toward his dramatic midpoint reveal, which explains the meaning his film’s title. In the opening scene we see a mysterious black-cloaked woman dump a body into a river. The police find the body and it’s identified by Doctor Dr. Génessier (Brasseur) as his missing daughter, much to the chagrin of another downtrodden father also in search of his missing daughter. By the dispassionate reaction of Génessier we know something is askew, and when we see Genessier return to his stately country home, meeting up with his assistant Louise (who dumped the body) we know there’s a diabolical plot at work. Holed up in seclusion in one of the magnificent bedrooms is poor Christiane, Genessier’s daughter, very much alive but covering up her face which has been malformed due to an extreme car accident.
We quickly begin to connect the dots, a plastic surgeon, a body missing a face, a dumped body in the river, a facially deformed girl sequestered in a creepy country mansion. The thoughts running through our heads, as the audience, point to some truly sick and twisted conclusions. Franju confirms our frightful suspicions when he crafts the shocking reveal of Genessier’s diabolical plan with a sequence as grotesque as anything in cinema at that time. Not only do we see Christiane’s deformed face, which is not all that bad but later the meticulous face-removal surgery of Genessier’s which is so cringe-worthy it rivals the celebrated shower scene in Psycho, released the same year.
The second half of the picture tracks the police investigation of one of Genessier’s victim and Christiane’s growing disillusion with her father’s plan. But at its core Eyes Without a Face is a disturbing examination of a psychopathic character evolving out of a father’s deep and all consuming love for his daughter – a love which blindly crosses moral and ethical boundaries into fiendish territory.
Franju’s brilliant execution of his situation recalls the expert craftsmanship of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique, that French panache and startling realism which never really crept into Alfred Hitchcock’s work until Psycho.
There’s also some poetic imagery and surprisingly beautiful metaphors which elegantly contrast his haunting conceptions. Early on Franju foreshadows the frantic finale by laying over introductory images of Genessier’s home with ear-piercing sounds of barking dogs. We don’t actually see them until later in the film, and though shown as ravenous and dangerous, to Christiane they are gentle and loyal to her. Genessier’s fate, which by no surprise, involves these dogs and recalls the eye-popping death of Mason Verger in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal.
Other than the face removal scene, the most memorable imagery is Christiane’s escape from her prison, behind her loyal pack of dogs and guided, almost floating along, with a flock of doves also caged and inprisoned like Christiane and her dogs.
Thus Eyes Without a Face exhibits the rare quality of being able to shock and sooth us within the same picture.
Eyes Without a Face is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection.