Eyes Without a Face
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If you've been mulling over a little nip-and-tuck now that those smile lines are annoying you, you might want to skip Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (1959), a strangely detached horror classic that presents plastic surgery in a boldly clinical manner. Though the rest of the film is a somber, haunting examination of lost identity, few people who have seen it can shake the memory of Franju's surgery sequence. Modern horror pictures may be more consistently grotesque, but Franju will unnerve you to the point that you'll flinch the next time you see a surgical clamp.
Pierre Brasseur plays Dr. Genessier, a famous plastic surgeon who has a car accident, and, in the process, mangles the face of his beautiful daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob). Unable to forgive himself, Genessier attempts to reconstruct Christiane's face by grafting the beautiful features of other women onto the ruined face of his beloved daughter. The unlucky victims are abducted or lured under false pretenses to Genessier by his loyal assistant-lover, Louise (Alida Valli). None of the grafts are successful but in the process Christiane learns, to her horror, about the unwilling donors. It all ends badly with a kennel full of ferocious dogs, subjects for Genessier's experiments, being released from their cages.
The Jean Redon novel that served as the basis for Eyes Without a Face was even more unsettling than the movie. Franju and his producer, Jules Borkon, knew that they were facing potential censorship problems with this picture, so they recruited the prestigious screenwriting team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac to give the story a much-needed sense of humanity. Boileau and Narcejac, who had already written screenplays for Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique (1955) and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), transformed a tawdry pulp fiction into a cautionary tale about a scientist trying to play God as well as a psychological melodrama propelled by a father's all-consuming guilt over his daughter's condition. Except for a few script changes (Boileau and Narcejac wanted either Brasseur or Scob to meet their end in a vat of wet cement), Eyes Without a Face, under Franju's direction, became an elegant art-house thriller that "deftly balances fantasy and realism, clinical detachment and operatic emotion, beauty, and pain, all presided over by Edith Scob's haunting, haunted eyes." (David Kalat in his liner notes from the Criterion DVD of Eyes Without a Face).
It cheapens the considerable accomplishment of the film to linger on one disturbing sequence, but you have to understand the impact that Franju's facial surgery had on the picture's first audiences. At the Edinburgh Film Festival, seven viewers actually fainted from the ordeal (Franju, who seemed a bit put off by the commotion, stated, "Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts"). Appalled critics panned the movie across the board at the time of its release - some vehemently insisted that it never should have been made at all. It wasn't until several years later, when everyone got over their panic and realized that the whole point of a horror movie is to horrify people, that the picture was accepted as a modern classic.
Franju pulls remarkable performances from his entire cast, especially Scob, but the secret weapons of Eyes Without a Face would have to be Maurice Jarre's bizarre, circus-like score, and Eugen Schufftan's cinematography, which gives the picture the look of a luminous, black and white documentary. Schufftan, by the way, was an artist in his own right, having worked with such cinematic luminaries as Fritz Lang, Abel Gance, G.W. Pabst, and Edgar Ulmer.
In an interview for Video Watchdog by Frederic Albert Levy and Tim Lucas, Edith Scob recalled the making of Eyes Without a Face and her unique appearance in the film: "Even though it was painful, I had to show up earlier than the others for make-up sessions, and wearing a mask all day long makes you a thing, with no expression. You are put aside [like an object]...They made a faceprint of me in order to create a series of masks that would fit me. There was the mask for close-ups, which was most often used, and was like a very thin skin glued around the eyes, glued around the lips, so that the skin would not tremble when I spoke, and there was a thicker mask, which I could take off." Scob takes offense at Eyes Without a Face being labeled a horror film and prefers to call it a "fantastique film. Horror films present another kind of violence. There is actually something poetic in Eyes, which makes it richer."
Scob and Franju had worked together previously in Head Against the Wall (La Tete Contre les Murs, 1959), Scob's screen debut, and would continue their collaboration after Eyes Without a Face with Therese Desqueyroux (1962), Judex (1963) and Thomas the Imposter (1964). Scob revealed some insights into Franju's direction of Eyes Without a Face when she said "Franju was fascinated with everything pertaining to surgery. He would say that the most beautiful horror film he had ever seen was a documentary about a trepanation [the sawing off of (a part of) the skull on a living patient], where you could see the brain of the patient and the patient smiling, as he did not feel anything. For Franju, this was the ultimate in fantasy."
Eyes Without a Face had no problems with the French censors prior to its European release but that was not the case with the American print. Retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and dubbed into English, Franju's film ended up on a double bill with The Manster, a Japanese-American co-production that was much more geared toward the exploitation horror market. According to David Kalat, "The American distributor at least recognized the unique qualities of their find, and played up its arthouse credentials. "A ghastly elegance that suggests Tennessee Williams," boasted the ads. One optical zoom and a discreet fade-to-black later, and the most objectionable excesses of the face-removal scene were safely hidden from impressionable American teenagers. The biggest cut, though, was not in the violent content but in its humanity: a scene of Genessier lovingly caring for a small child at his clinic was snipped from U.S. prints. Blood and gore, fine, but Franju crossed the line when he gave his villain a sympathetic side."
The U.S. release version was virtually ignored by most mainstream critics but the original French cut of Eyes Without a Face slowly acquired a devoted following over the years. One of the few American critics to notice its uniqueness was Pauline Kael who wrote "it's perhaps the most austerely elegant horror film ever made...it has a vague, floating, lyric sense of dread which goes beyond the simpler effects of horror movies that don't make intellectual claims. Franju's approach is almost as purified and as mystic as Bresson's." And that assessment still stands today.
Director: Georges Franju
Producer: Jules Borkon
Screenplay: Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (from a book by Jean Redon)
Cinematography: Eugen Schufftan
Editor: Gilbert Natot
Music: Maurice Jarre
Production Design: Auguste Capelier
Costume Design: Marie Martine
Principal Cast: Pierre Brasseur (Dr. Genessier), Alida Valli (Louise), Juliette Mayniel (Edna), Edith Scob (Christiane Genessier), Francois Guerin (Jacques Vernon), Alexandre Rignault (Inspector Parot), Beatrice Altariba (Paulette), Charles Blavette (L'homme de la fourriere), Claude Brasseur (Inspector), Michel Etcheverry (Forensic Surgeon).
by Paul Tatara & Jeff Stafford
Criterion liner notes for "Eyes Without a Face" by David Kalat & Patrick McGrath
Video Watchdog, No. 107, Interview with Edith Scob by Frederic Albert Levy and Tim Lucas