Georges Franju’s “Les Yeux sans Visage” plays like it was always designed to be considered the classic of Horror cinema it has now become, from the outset: France’s first horror film was originally conceived by its producer Jules Borkon, as a response to the then recent success enjoyed by Hammer films with Terence Fisher’s Technicolor Gothic fantasy “The Curse of Frankenstein”. Faced with the contradictory task of producing something comparably bold, but without what French good taste would inevitably perceive as the ‘vulgarity’ of a straightforward b-movie horror picture, Franju, together with his screenwriters – the trendy poster boys of clever French thriller writing Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac (“Les Diabolique”, “Vertigo”) – produced a film that is at once as Gothic and Melodramatic as any cobwebbed crypt from the fevered imagination of Ann Radcliffe, but which cloaks its traditional Gothic motifs in a quiet, un-histrionic veil of contemporary normalcy.
The genius of the film is that this juxtaposition between the rational, commonplace world of the everyday, and the Gothic realm of dark nightmares and repressed desire worms its way into the very heart of the narrative to become its main theme. The deceptively simple story unfurls with a placid, matter-of-fact sedateness — without the showy displays of suspense or the traditional “thrills” of the genre. The acting style of the players is understated and naturalistic and Franju always paces the film’s precise developments with a methodically sure hand. Some twenty-first century viewers initially find this off-putting and it is, indeed, very “French”; but “Les Yeux sans Visage” is a film that only gradually reveals its beauty and its terrors. While “Peeping Tom” and even “Psycho” (all three films appearing within a year of each other) thrust the horror genre unambiguously into the contemporary world, Franju’s film always keeps one foot firmly in its Gothic past; but, perhaps more disturbingly, it eventually becomes a lyrical meditation on the compulsive, neurotic absurdities of man’s nature, a madness only thinly obscured by the surface rationality of modern society.
Pierre Brasseur plays Doctor Genessier, a well-respected hospital surgeon and expert in a nascent medical breakthrough: the skin graft. Unknown to society at large, Genessier’s daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), who was believed to have committed suicide in the Seine after being horribly facially scarred in a car accident caused by her father — is actually alive, but confined to a suite of rooms in the upper level of the doctor’s plush villa. In a fully equipped operating theatre located deep in the bowels of the underground vaults beneath the villa, Genessier performs a desperate series of operations on his daughter’s ruined face, with facial skin procured from innocent blue-eyed girls who have been enticed there by Genessier’s devoted love-struck secretary, Louise (Alida Valli) — a former patient who, herself, has had her face restored and who has remained obsessively devoted to her surgeon saviour ever since. After his inevitable medical botch jobs, Louise is also charged with callously dumping the disfigured bodies in the Seine!
Genessier and Lousie are an icily efficient cinematic serial killing team, all the more unnerving for the fact that they seek not to kill and apparently gain no real pleasure from the carnage they initiate as a side consequence of Genessier’s experimental surgery. Like the stray dogs the surgeon keeps caged-up in his vaults for the purpose of clinical vivisection (all of them having been merrily handed over by the local dog pound!), they are sacrifices made in the name of a higher cause. But rather than “research” or science in general, Genessier’s true cause is his destructive obsession with his daughter’s injuries.
While Alida Valli, here caught halfway between the cheek-boned Hollywood starlet she’d been during the Forties and the Gothic sorceress of European cinema she was to become in films by Mario Bava (“Kill Baby … Kill”) and Dario Argento (“Suspiria”, “Inferno”), looks uncannily like Myra Hindley in pearl choker and French haute couture, Pierre Brasseur plays the glacially detached Doctor Genessier with understated simplicity. No obvious “mad doctor” moments here: Genessier presents a model of discreet, undemonstrative rational authority to the world at large (which is why he is never ever suspected by the authorities, no matter how much evidence appears to be accumulating against him). But even in private and even to himself, Genessier still keeps up the act, expressing the most warped, murderous obsessions and acts in exactly the same calm, rational medico-speak as he habitually uses when he examines his patients at the hospital across the road! But behind this reasonable, paternalistic air there lurks a deranged megalomania that is only ever periodically detectable in Genessier’s sweat-soaked brow and his constant talk of his wish to “perform miracles”. Louise, meanwhile, is forever making crazed protestations of “faith” in his abilities; along with relentless exhortations that Christiane should learn to have faith in her father’s eventual success, no matter what the cost. This is the controlling neuroticism of a deranged patriarch, cunningly hidden behind an obscuring mask of contemporary medical rationalism. The centrepiece of this attitude is demonstrated in Franju’s handling of the central “horrific” scene of the film, the now famous sequence when we are shown, in real time, Genessier peeling away the face of one of his victims — not with the blaring, strident urgency of a Hammer Horror picture, but with the cool detachment of a black & white medical documentary!
The plight of Edith Scob’s Christiane and the unhealthy relationship with her father is at the Gothic core of this film. The Villa, as is so often the case in the Gothic form, becomes a representation of the patriarch’s psyche. Not only must Genessier control his daughter’s environment by keeping her confined in blandly furnished upper rooms of his house (like the “mad woman in the attic” of Jane Eyre) , but he also seeks total mastery of her physical and mental self perception. Unable to accept his responsibility for her facial deformity, Genessier has her don a blank, expressionless white mask that renders her an eerie apparition, doomed to flit around the dark stairways of the villa at night. Franju and his director of photography, Eugen Shuftan, photograph her there with the great oak banister forming prison bar-like shadows across her wispy, androgynous form, clad in its shapeless satin dress which, ironically enough, mimics the look of a surgical smock! Even when he has apparently finally succeeded in giving her the face he always promised her, Genessier’s obsessive control doesn't stop, but gets worse. In a darkly comic scene the triumphant Genessier exhorts his now pristinely beautiful daughter to “smile”, before nervously adding, as Christiane’s ever-widening smile-lines threaten to undo all his careful handiwork, “ … not too much!” Rather than enjoying her new life, Christiane is forced to continue to hide away in the family villa (the rest of the world, including her former boyfriend, Jacques [Francois Guerin], still believing her to be dead) where her father continues to obsessively prod and poke her new face, nervously searching for imperfections!
A vein of black humour is always just below the surface but Franju never lets the unlikely events spill over into farce. Instead it’s expressed in a mordant, ironical form, such as in the fact that the police’s plan to flush out the killer completely backfires through their inability to even suspect for a moment that the good doctor could ever have anything to do with such evil horrors! and so it leads to another girl being put directly in danger.
The final sequence of the film finally gives over completely to Gothic Fantastique. In a telling metaphor for the doctor’s hidden psyche, his sterile, modern operating theatre nestles in the heart of a network of cold, dark Gothic underground vaults and tunnels. The caged doves and impounded dogs are let loose by a now deranged Christiane, and as the hounds tear into Genessier, we see her spectral apparition, encircled by fluttering doves (the animals represent Christiane’s respective physical and spiritual emancipation from patriarchal tyranny, of course), wander off into the night, alone.
The Criterion Collection present the film in a pretty good widescreen 1.66:1 transfer, although there is slight damage to the right side of the image which is detectable in darker scenes. Unlike the bare bones UK disc from Second Sight, the Criterion version does feature a fairly nice compliment of extras, though. Chief among these is Franju’s 1949 surrealist documentary “Blood of the Beasts” which presents the horrors of Parisian slaughterhouses and lyrically contrasts them with everyday life in the surrounding environs. Utterly uncompromising in its depiction of the working practices of the day, it is suffused with bloodily haunting and grossly surreal images such as racks of decapitated, de-legged calves, still twitching on their backs while being drained to make veal. Not for the faint hearted!
There are also several short clips taken from various French documentaries which feature Franju talking about both “Eyes Without A Face” and “Blood of the Beasts”; and also a clip of Boileau and Narcejac explaining their writing practices and their “formula” for the thriller. There are theatrical trailers (the U.S. one pairs the film with ridiculous b-movie atrocity called “The Manster”) and a stills gallery of rare production photos and promotional material; and the disc is packaged with a fold-out sheet featuring two essays by novelist Patrick McGrath and film historian David Kalat. A neat haul!
Although the graphic horror of the operation scenes may fail to shock as they did audiences in 1959, the film’s strange combination of stark, clinical realism and brooding Gothic fantasy still gives it a unique feel and it remains as essential a landmark in horror as its contemporaries, “Psycho” and “Peeping Tom”.