Originally released to much outrage and disgust in 1960, George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans visage) was too well crafted to be dismissed as just another exploitation horror flick. Nobody seemed to know what to do with it, and so it was destined to achieve its classic status only gradually. It's still absolutely chilling and quite singular, a skin-crawling tale of obsession, arrogance and murder both lyrical and clinical. As Carlos Clarens wrote in his 1967 Illustrated History of the Horror Film, with only his second feature (after numerous shorts and documentaries), Franju had lit upon “the elusive alliance of poetry and terror.”
Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) works in a clinic near his sprawling estate outside Paris. Though highly regarded for his advances in plastic surgery, Génessier has withdrawn from social life following the disappearance of his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), who literally lost her face in an accident in which Génessier was the driver. Everyone, her fiancé included, assumes Christiane has suicided; she’s in fact secretly confined in her father’s mansion, awaiting the experimental surgery that her father has promised will give her back her face, surgery requiring the face of another, unwilling, donor.
Synopses don’t suit Eyes Without a Face. The story, simple as a fairy tale, builds at a deliberate pace, offering information in short doses and building suspense with little exposition. Early scenes in which Génessier’s devoted assistant Louise (Alida Valli of The Third Man) prowls the Latin Quarter, smoking cigarettes and sizing up young women are presented ambiguously, and Franju gives an ominous degree of attention to simple movements through doors, down corridors, up stairs, as though our sense of architecture were essential to our understanding of the drama silently unfolding. It’s weird, and through its unsettling weirdness works very well.
I mentioned surfaces: the cold brilliance of this story, cleanly adapted by the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (Les Diaboliques, Vertigo) from Jean Redon’s novel, lies in our peculiar attachment to our faces, that body part most closely associated with our sense of identity, thus the surface reflects unseen depths. But ironically, though Franju lingers on many faces throughout, its probably Christiane’s mask that, while unspeakably creepy, is also the most affecting face in the movie. Animated only by voice and gestures made by her thin limbs, the mask becomes a haunted and haunting thing, with Scob constituting the movie’s closest thing to a truly sympathetic person.
Uncontrollable and uncooperative, flesh itself is an independent force in Eyes Without a Face, a sort of precedent for David Cronenberg’s flesh-driven films. But by the wondrous, beautiful final images, aflutter with newly released doves, dogs and leaves caressed by evening breeze, we see that Eyes Without a Face is also about the spirit, adrift in a world full only of imperfect houses in which in can dwell.