Georges Franju’s monstrous masterpiece delivers horror sans face but with a huge heart.
Combining Frankenstein, fairy tales and the supernatural, Georges Franju takes a horrific premise and grafts flesh onto its beastly bones. This French frightener from 1959 lingers malevolently in the memory and has, accordingly, proved tremendously influential, most recently providing Pedro Almodóvar with the basis for The Skin I Live In.
Eyes Without a Face is the story of a beautiful young woman, Christiane (Edith Scob), whose face is badly burned in a car wreck. At the wheel of the vehicle was her maverick surgeon father Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), said to have been driving recklessly. The accident leaves the disfigured and distraught Christiane confined to the upper floor of her father’s palatial residence, a cross between a princess in a tower and an apparition.
Desperate to return his daughter to her former beauty, her father springs into horrible action – stealing faces from girls who are similar in appearance and grafting them onto his reluctant daughter, with repeatedly disastrous results.
He’s assisted in his macabre plan by the mysterious Louise (Alida Valli), who’s in debt to him following her own facial reconstruction. She’s tasked with identifying and luring-in the girls, and disposing of the corpses – one of whom Dr Génessier deliberately misidentifies as his own daughter to effectively kill Christiane off whilst diverting suspicion, a fact she uncovers when she chillingly finds her own obituary notice.
Eyes Without a Face is based on the novel by Jean Redon and was co-adapted for the screen by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (who wrote many times together as the single identity Boileau-Narcejac). The duo penned the novels upon which Les Diaboliques and Vertigo were based and thus had unrivalled form concocting sinister conspiracies. Confessing that they like to focus on the victims of crime, they shifted the focus from the doctor to daughter.
Brasseur and Valli are quite the devious double-act here but it’s Scob who really impresses. Acting for the most part behind a stiff, emotionally neutral mask (which the character despises), she’s delicate and ethereal, existing in a torturous limbo, desperate to live normally again, horrified by her own reflection and her father’s actions. Incidentally, Christiane is referenced in the recent Holy Motors when Scob – who appears in a central role – once again dons a face-like mask.
One of the most fascinating and disconcerting aspects of Eyes Without a Face is that Dr Génessier’s actions are shown to be not so much those of a madman, but those of a desperately guilty father and a hubristic professional. In 1962 Eyes Without a Face was cut and simplistically rebranded as The Horror Chamber of Dr Faustus for a US audience (and shown in a double-bill with the schlocky The Manster). Astonishingly, one of the excised scenes merely showed Génessier being kind to a child – a perfect illustration of the perceived potency of humanising a killer.
Despite the restrictions of the era, Franju doesn’t scrimp on the nauseating detail, with grisly descriptions and even a graphic depiction of surgery. We’re told plainly that one of the victims has been found with a, "large open wound where the face should be, edges so smooth it’s as if someone’s taken a scalpel to them."
The film’s most grotesquely stunning moment – still surprisingly in its power – is the depiction of the heterograft procedure, showing the removal of one victim’s face in horrible detail. Franju’s apparent response to hearing that several audience members had fainted during the sequence at the Edinburgh Film Festival was: "Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts."
Eyes Without a Face might not be afraid to offend our eyes and ears, or to muddy the moral waters, but it’s also filled with Cocteau-esque compositions and is without a doubt one of the more beautiful offerings from the horror genre. That’s never more true than in its final, eerily enchanting frames, which give us a uniquely twisted happy ending.