Director: Georges Franju
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Paris, the 1950s. Louise drives in the rain, then safely disposes of the corpse in the backseat of her car. At the same time, Dr Genessier gives a lecture about skin grafting and transplantation. The corpse is discovered, then Dr Genessier informs the police that it is his missing daughter, Christiane, who was disfigured in a car accident. Dr Genessier oversees Christiane’s ‘funeral’ but returns home where she is still alive, but disfigured. The corpse was a woman whose face Dr Genessier used for skin grafts. Dr Genessier promises to restore Christiane to her former beauty.
Louise then lures Edna, a young student to Dr Genessier’s home by promising a room, but she is given chloroform and then used for another experiment. This seems to work but the awakened Edna then falls to her death upon discovering what has happened. The graft soon deteriorates and becomes infected. Jacques, Christiane’s fiancé, discovers that the police are looking for a woman with a pearl choker as their sole lead, which reminds him of Louise. The police ask a young thief, Paulette, to entrap Dr Genessier and Louise, though the police lose track of her at the clinic and Louise abducts her. On the verge of undergoing surgery, Dr Genessier is interrupted. At this point, Christiane murders Louise and Paulette escapes. Christiane releases Dr Genessier’s dogs, which maul him to death. Christiane then escapes into the night.
Franju had spent approximately a decade making shorts and documentaries before embarking on a feature film directorial career. ‘Eyes Without a Face’ was only his second film, but is a remarkable dip into the horror genre, combining both the macabre and the poetic to stunning effect. The film initially received a muted response both in France and abroad, where the film was edited and audiences reacted negatively. It is only in recent decades that the film has been critically rehabilitated, perhaps because of the benefit of hindsight and that modern audiences are more comfortable with the more extreme elements of Franju’s film. It is now justifiably considered one of the most important and influential horrors of all time.
Franju sets the film up perfectly with the opening scene, packed with mystery and suspicion. Who is this mysterious woman with what seems to be a corpse in her backseat? This scene is meticulously constructed. Disposal is not easy for Louise and Franju ensures that he shows the audience just how difficult it is. Other scenes of a controversial nature are methodically shown, most notably the grafting scenes. Anyone who has seen Franju’s early documentary ‘Blood of the Beasts’, set in an abattoir, will be aware that Franju is not interested in holding back scenes of a visceral nature to mute the reaction of his audience. Franju shows Dr Genessier at work in vast detail; to show how painstaking his work is. The copious sweat dripping from his forehead during these operations show his desperation and determination. Franju also semi-humanises the doctor; he is aware of the pain and suffering he causes but he justifies his cause, although passing off a man’s dead daughter as his own, whose death he was responsible for, reminds us of his innate cruelty.
Franju’s documentary roots are also demonstrated in an intriguing scene during the mid-point of the film after the ultimately unsuccessful graft of Edna’s face into Christiane. To demonstrate this failure, Franju uses a montage of photographs, complete with voiceover, showing the rapid deterioration of the graft. This is a more successful means of doing this than through normal shooting and editing methods. Franju is more able to capture the day-by-day decline. Also of interest is how Franju initially shoots Christiane, keeping us in the dark about her current condition. We discover that she is not really dead but that Dr Genessier has testified that the corpse is his daughter. When we first meet Christiane, Franju shoots her from behind or subjectively, from her own point of view. Speaking to Louise, Franju moves his camera according to Louise’s movements. Only when Christiane puts on her mask does Franju then shoot her directly. He only reveals her true condition through Edna’s eyes when she is about to undergo her operation.
Music has an important role in the film, with Louise and Christiane appearing to have their own signature themes, courtesy of the famous composer Maurice Jarre. Louise’s night-time prowls for victims are accompanied by a jaunty tune but with an air of menace, which recalls the theme of ‘The Third Man’, which of course Alida Valli played a significant role. Christiane is soundtracked by a more optimistic theme. The first instance we hear the theme is immediately after Dr Genessier’s ominous return to the family home, which featured the barking of dogs and a slow and menacing ascent of the stairs. Its use is never more significant than in the breathtaking closing scene, when Christiane emerges from her ‘imprisonment’, leaving into the night with a dove in her hand, perhaps suggesting peace and an end to the drama and violence that accompanied her father’s attempts to restore her looks. This use of music drives the narrative and increases our understanding of both characters and their motivations.
1960 was also the year of two other controversial horror films; ‘Psycho’ and ‘Peeping Tom’. ‘Eyes Without a Face’ is just as innovative and intriguing as its contemporaries, and contributed equally to the development of the horror genre, most notably in terms of modern slasher films (John Carpenter noted the influence upon ‘Halloween’). More so than these films though, ‘Eyes Without a Face’ is a schizophrenic horror film, combining moments of lyrical beauty with moments of cruelty and fear. Thoughtful and subtle in its examination of Christiane’s condition and psychological state, capturing her frustration and desire to see an end to her father’s mission, Franju expertly uses Jarre’s score and his own creative methods of filming to produce a groundbreaking and near-perfect example of the genre.