1960; directed by Georges Franju; adapted by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Jean Redon and Claude Sautet; 90 mins
[There are only very poor quality trailers on YouTube at the mo, so in the mean time, here’s critic Mark Kermode waxing positive on the film]
Eyes. Face. Appearance. Reflection. Perfection. Mutilation. Acceptance. Rejection. Monsters. Beauties. Mirrors. Windows. Surfaces. Looking. Seeing. Understanding.
Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve wanted to see this movie, having been creeped out by the image of Edith Scob in that strange mask and enticed by that beautiful title (in French, Les yeux sans visage). Finally, it has passed these eyes and it’s every bit as great as was promised!
Parisian surgeon, Dr. Génessier (stern, gravel-voiced Pierre Brasseur) is obsessed with giving his daughter, Christiane, a normal face after she has been hideously disfigured in a car accident. With the help of his dedicated assistant, Louise (Alida Valli), he has taken to kidnapping young girls and surgically removing their faces to graft onto Christiane, unaware and uncaring of what she really wants.
It’s director Franju‘s eternal triumph that in telling a story about the pursuit of perfection, he made a perfect film. Everything about this film is right, it fits. The payoffs work on a plot and a character level because the film sets the characters up believably and shows what they are capable of. Génessier is a medical man, so he may have been driven mad but his interpersonal skills and affections were probably fairly askew anyway. Thus, he can see subtle physical blemishes on his daughter but not the vast, gaping, emotional chasms that need his aid.
Unlike so many older films, whose messages (mostly, through no fault of their own) tend to date, this is one gruesome horror movie with a very healthy message about self-image vs socially acceptable standards, in particular, those imposed by men. The film constantly plays with faces being disguised and appearances being manipulated; a key line being “I owe you my face”. Consider the opening scene where we see a very tense Louise driving the car down a dark, lonely road with a disguised figure in the back seat. Thanks to the masterful Eugen Schüfftan‘s black & white cinematography, we can’t quite make out what is wrong with the figure’s face, which creates an unsettling feeling of dread early on but also plays with our morbid and shameful curiosity about seeing gross or unnatural things.
Even the gore is meaningful in this movie! Bear in mind, that this movie is almost 60 years old, the central surgery scene* still makes you want to chuck but it is necessary. Without giving too much away, it is about reminding us that, underneath, we are all disgusting, weeping, bloody fleshbags.
Maurice Jarre‘s fairy tale music really enhances the film, coming in whenever Christiane, played enchantingly by Scob through her eyes and physical interaction with her surroundings, wanders around this mansion-cum-prison in which she’s been trapped as her father conducts her life herein. Her life is no longer real to her and this music feels like it is swirling around in her head as she passes the days waiting to be free. Free from home, from bondage and from the expectations of those around her.
*Almost ruined for me by having the money shot shown in Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss. So, just watch out for that one.