This review spoils the beginning of the film, but not the end. Granted, this film is best viewed with zero foreknowledge. Go watch it, then come back and read this. Thank me later.
A severe-faced blonde drives through the night, flanked by trees and stonewalls, wary of any traffic joining her on the road. Why so wary? we ask. Then, we see: a figure in fedora and topcoat is in the backseat, head lolling forwards—a corpse disguised as a sleeping passenger, the crime concealed cleverly but not inasmuch as to avoid suspense, a faint possibility of capture. No time for a better idea: the body’s decay calls for haste. The blonde dumps it in a river. A respected surgeon, Dr. Génessier, is giving a lecture on the potential and risks of facial reconstruction when he receives a distressing call. That call leads him to a morgue, where he sees the dead body and identifies it as his daughter, Christiane—which he does in spite of the fact that the face has been cleanly carved off. Tessot, another bereft father of a missing girl, wonders aloud to Dr. Génessier whether he should take a look at the corpse and assure it is not his daughter. The doctor insists that there is still hope for that girl—the dismissal comes off as awkward. At the funeral, the blonde stands in a line with the doctor, and shakes hands as he does with mourners offering condolences. The plot thickens; the culprit is on the inside. Yet, the circumstances are even more sinister than that. After the funeral, Dr. Génessier and the blonde—his assistant, Louise—head to his house, where a young lady lies in bed, hiding her face—or at least what’s left of it. It’s Christiane. She’s very much alive, but far from well. Her face has been disfigured in an accident for which her dad is responsible, and the doctor is trying to make up for it by commissioning Louise to lure girls who resemble Christiane to his palatial estate, where he knocks them out with chloroform, slices off their faces, and attempts to graft them onto Christiane’s face. Results so far have been dire. Tessot’s daughter was one such girl. She died mid-surgery, and it was her body that Louise dumped in the river. Tessot’s fatalist instincts were right, and Dr. Génessier cruelly lied to him, giving him false hope to cover up his crime. This doctor is deranged.
The opening scenes of Eyes Without a Face—a classic of French horror, and the most famous film of Georges Franju—demonstrate a mastery of narrative economy invaluable to students of cinema. Every scene, every take, presents something new that alters and clarifies all that came before. Every detail is essential, nothing is embellished, all the Chekhov’s guns pay off, yet there is enough theme and symbolism to add variety, make the proceedings plausible, and avoid coming off as generic and schematic. To be sure, the disturbing revelations are foreshadowed—mainly through Génessier’s lecture, and postmortem commentary on Tessot’s daughter. Even if you do see what’s coming, though, the confirmation of it is palpable. This is the value of the horror genre: not sadomasochistic jump scares, but the fulfillment of a grave fear, and the catharsis that arrives with looking it in the eye (face?) and confronting it head-on. After the flawless first act, the writers—Franju, novelists Jean Redon and Boileau-Narcejac, and Claude Sautet—show us what they can wax with the opposite: a predictable scenario, in which the horror emerges not from the nasty surprises but from the mounting dread of preordained doom. We see Louise go to Paris and appeal to a Swiss girl, Edna, looking for a place to stay. She has Christiane’s blue eyes. She may as well be Tessot’s girl all over again, just another selfsame rung on the doctor’s downward spiral. This is Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. These damsels have no significance to Génessier other than that they are doppelgängers of Christiane, of whom he is deeply envious. Edna’s end is written—and after Christiane’s attempt to rescue her backfires (in a way you have to see—and feel—for yourself), all we can do is watch, and understand why, as she lies unconscious and powerless while her face is peeled from the rest of her body. There is no fighting back kicking and screaming and losing with dignity, only a chilling indulgence in defeat.
A traditionally structured film made and premiered when the New Wave was greasing its wheels, Eyes Without a Face stuck to the tropes of gothic horror while innovating within them. This is the earliest film I know of to create horror out of a group of bumbling, well-meaning good guys playing right into the villain’s hand. The ironic confusion the writers create between the murderer’s victim and the murderer’s daughter in the first act is a stroke of genius, prepping the audience for the film’s theme of physical collusion, and the counterpoint that Tessot’s presence provides is icing. The police’s incompetence plays into Génessier’s hand one more time, towards the film’s end, and though the impact of that second helping is blunted, the suspense is far from totally diminished. The body horror was also groundbreaking for its day, and the psychological factor makes it even queasier. Génessier is not a quack. He reconstructed Louise’s face successfully, for which she rewards him with loyalty and trust. He can perform a skin graft. But can he make lightning strike twice? Apparently not. He has ruined Christiane’s face, and in trying to rectify it, he ruins other faces and other lives and digs deeper into his moral grave. (One scene late in the film indicates, with appropriate irony, that Génessier has more medical talent on the subject of eyes than on skin.) What exactly is his plan with the girls whose faces he robs? This isn’t made clear. He decorates their heads with gauze (last year’s Austrian horror workout Goodnight Mommy goes out of its way to reference this), imprisons them in a cellar, and…that’s it. Does he expect them to be pushovers, to be open to something in return for their visages? Maybe he hopes he’ll find a cadaver resembling Christiane and then be able to give Edna—and Tessot’s girl before her—a facial transplant. But shouldn’t that have been his original plan for Christiane? Wouldn’t the cadaver’s skin already be decaying? No matter. To Génessier, these girls’ lives are expendable for their faces, and beauty is a zero-sum game. The film’s most horrifying theme is that the body is indispensable to our identity; many have been disfigured enough that they have euthanized themselves. Génessier’s devotion to body over soul makes a mockery of the Hippocratic oath.
Fitting to its title, Eyes Without a Face views superficially disgusting events with clear, even perspective—like wizened gothic pupils gazing onto new storytelling frontiers that grow more insidious and challenging with each innovation. Pierre Brasseur brings a contemporary clinical take to Dr. Génessier, smearing his delusions with stentorian professionalism, and underhandedly reminding the audience that the strongest of intellects is always vulnerable to ethical corruption. Alida Valli, as Louise, is what you’d expect from a dark, serious titan among Italian actors; between this and The Third Man, she has grown on me since I cringed at her awful late-career misstep as an über-camp dance school administrator in the overrated Suspiria. Rounding out the lead trio is Edith Scob in the role of a lifetime as Christiane. Performing all but a few minutes behind a porcelain white mask with nose, lips and eyeholes, robbed of facial expression, she is tasked with creating a character and evoking her through movement and voice alone—not a role fit for an acting novice. You try doing it and pulling it off as well as Scob does. Avoiding overt despair in favor of grace, Scob charts Christiane’s progression from weakness to rebellion with perfect fluidity, and her ultimate acceptance of her disfigurement is conveyed with a brutal karmic vendetta and a stunning closing shot. It is not easy to make acceptance of a tragedy a satisfying resolution—much less so in this genre—but this film succeeds at it with aplomb. It’s her body; it’s her choice. This tale could’ve been set centuries before, so when the camera strays onto a passing airplane or a Picasso poster in a chic bachelor pad, the realization that this is the ‘60s is startling—but in hindsight, this really is a modernist film, a keen warning on the burdens of expanding medical technology with a dash of feminism. The only glaring flaw is the mismatched carnivalesque frill of the young Maurice Jarre’s musical score. This is a bracing cinematic textbook, and I am glad that I was able to overcome my distaste for horror enough to see it.