Director: Georges Franju
Screenplay: Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet, Pierre Gascar
Cast: Pierre Brasseur (as Doctor Génessier); Edith Scob (as Christiane Génessier); Alida Valli (as Louise); François Guérin (as Jacques Vernon); Juliette Mayniel (as Edna Grüber)
Synopsis: After a car crash of his own cause that disfigures his daughter Christiane (Scob), Dr. Génessier (Brasseur), under the disguise of a respectable figure at his own clinic, kidnaps young women and intends to surgically remove their faces until one to replace his daughters can be found.
Simplicity is a key trait of Georges Franju. Depicting the fantastique, he nonetheless focuses his attentions on the ordinary and the natural, and turns them into the source of his films' surrealism. His influence from films such as Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires (1915) is clear both in using everyday environments as pockets for the unsuspected and the minimalism of his cinematic style, a camera pan or a close-up only used when entirely necessary, and close-ups only used whenever Edith Scob is on screen. Of course, he would go on with Feuillade's grandson Jacques Champreux to readapt Judex in 1963, but this is important with all the Franju films I've seen because it's the reason for the ethereal air that presides over these simple, easy-to-grasp stories. This style could take the same plot and narrative structure of any modern day horror film and turn it into a deep work of art because of the careful consideration he as a director placed on the material.
Fifty years on Eyes Without A Face is still unsettling and at points stomach churning in its quietly paced, matter of fact style. The naturism of Franju's style, like his idol Feuillade, is contradicted by the moments of the unconventional and the fantastical natures of the plots, where Nuits Rouges (1974), his film serial condensed into one feature, can have a narrative about Knights Templar, murder and intrigue but is shot in a grimy, realistic tone on the streets of France, or his drama about a man locked up in a mental institution, Head Against The Wall (1958), still feels dreamlike despite being grounded in reality.
Eyes Without A Face takes a plot that would be found in multiple forms later on in the decades, a plot that may have existed in some form long before it was made, and had at least one direct copy, unintentional or not, in Jess Franco's The Awful Dr. Orlof in 1962. I loved that Franco film regardless of where the plot originally came from, but Eyes Without A Face is nonetheless a special work by itself, treating this material in a sombre, graceful way. Where there is disquieting magic in Christiane, wearing her mask, wandering the rooms in the mansion home she is locked up in, and moments which are still appalling like the one carefully done but nerve shredding scene of facial removal on an operating table.
The contrast between these various sides is continually blurred. The most iconic image is of Christiane's mask, a lifeless skin that blends with Scob's actual face in the beautiful monochrome image, suggesting porcelain but also a death mask, leaving only her eyes to show any emotion. The brief moments of gore and disfigurement still have a power to appal in this decade, despite the gorier films made today, because their briefness matched to the strict use of them adds to their impact. The serene mood of the film makes it more effecting, Franju following a trait of the Surrealists well of melding the beautiful and the horrifying within the same subtle image. That Génessier and Louise are complex human beings, guilt felt by the father for his crimes but willing to sacrifice others for his daughter, encapsulates this further.
The cinematography by Eugen Schüfftan is superb. Franju has an obsession with environments that either involve a form of symmetry or a vast depth to them. This particular film has very elaborate settings that give it a different tone to his other work - the prison like mansion with its secret rooms and staircases the one could get lost in, Génessier's clinic, the area where the dogs he uses for his experiments are in cages in a row from one side to another. Even where there is beauty onscreen there is also an ominous nature to the environments, the moments of respite still carrying a wariness for the viewer of what could happen.
Maurice Jarre's music at first feels unbelievable at odds with what is happening in the first scenes, the reputation the film had for me reading of it over countless years never mentioning the sound of a jaunty theme one would be more inclined to find at a carnival. As the film goes along however, it matches the divide between the horrible and the serene perfectly, the apparent joyfulness of it creating a grimness to what takes place.
Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Fantastique
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium
Franju can be partially compared to Jean Rollin. Rollin was more openly fantastical and wildly varying in how his film were structured, but they share the same approximation of the fantastical with a grounded reality, their matter-of-factness for events happening as much their style when the unforeseen appears in a normal, ordinary street without need to excuse its appearance. With Franju this means he can find the most surreal things in the more ordinary circumstances. The strangest moment of the film is in fact only a shot of a passenger airliner flying in the sky, above a graveyard Génessier and Louise are hiding evidence of one of their crimes, intruding on them and to be looked up at with fear despite the obvious fact no one high above could see what they are doing, the night-time covering their actions not enough to not feel anyone could stumble on them red-handed. The melding of an ordinary occurrence with the unordinary is a lot harder to achieve in films as you can reduce either or both trying to meld both sides in a film, something Franju succeeds in.
On another day I'd have said Eyes Without A Face would've been a "None" on my chart because it's hooked onto a plot with minimal openly "abstract" content. However one can be deceived by upfront weirdness in other films, expecting the mood to be openly blatant in letting itself be known to a viewer. Franju's work can be argued to be more abstract because of how normalcy is transformed into the imaginary without signposting it, the rating finally chosen reflecting this fact.
It took many years to see this film, having heard of its reputation. In that time I fell in love with Judex, for me one of the best films ever made, and have kept an eye out for anything by Franju made available to English speaking viewers like myself. To find Eyes Without A Face was great and left me chilled as it was intended to do to an audience was all I hoped for and that emotion means a lot.