Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) is one of those films that seems to have cultural impact and name recognition that outweighs how many people have actually seen it. Selected imagery from the film has found fame outside the classic film bubble, but reducing the film to that overlooks its worth as a fantastic, stylish genre mashup.
Generally speaking, it takes time for a movie to fully captivate. The web needs to be weaved so to speak. But somehow Eyes Without a Face pulls you right into the mystery from the first few minutes. That’s a difficult thing to achieve. But through shot composition and overall mood driven by the scattered score, a car trip that just feels a little off lures us in. From there the film builds into a crime-horror hybrid that recognises that both mystery and shocks are important to overall success. Doctor Génessier has a real Doctor Frankenstein vibe about him as he yearns for the ‘mad-scientist’ solution to his daughter’s mutilation in a car accident. That probably makes the film and the character of the doctor a touch more whimsical than it is. The film examines how actions that can be grounded in supposed love, can be violent, misogynist and inexcusable. Indeed protestations of love can be used to excuse heinous thoughts, words and deeds. There is great mystery in the way the face of Christiane (the doctor’s daughter) is kept from the camera. This culminates in a literal unmasking that perhaps does not have the Phantom of the Opera (1925) level impact it was aiming for. As for the horror side of things, well for starters the film features one of the greatest masks in film history. Talking Jason or Michael Myers level of simple, terrifying iconography, though perhaps with more thematic weight to it, when considered in light of the focus on patriarchal possession of the female body. The doctor is imposing blankness and uniformity onto his daughter’s body against her will. A body he also touches and manipulates throughout the film without seeking her consent.
Also on the horror front, the film features a sequence of grossness that I didn’t believe existed in film until at the least the 80s. A slow, considered scene of a face being surgically peeled off. This main surgery sequence is methodical, almost silent to emphasise the gravity of what they are doing as a scalpel deliberately runs underneath face skin. These people are literally peeling a face off! And here, unlike in a lot of films, the audience really feels the impact of that and is forced to consider it. A lot of the great style of the film goes to the horror. In another sequence, documentary style still ‘mug-shots’ are used to show the rejection and failing of Christiane’s face transplant. Again this melding of documentary into the horror film for added impact and authenticity feels way ahead of its time. It is also measured and services the themes of the film, rather than just using gross photos to shock the audience, as it is sometimes used for such as in Adam Green’s otherwise pretty excellent Digging up the Marrow (2014). The final shot of peace after the chaos is a horror staple and Eyes Without a Face closes with one that is meaningful and almost physical in the way it soothes jangled emotions wrought by the 90 minutes that precede it.
It is quite amazing the grossness Eyes Without a Face creates quite simply through the well-executed practical effects. A thin mask, good acting, camera placement, shot length and positioning of the characters, all combine to make the scene difficult to watch because of its penetrative ickiness. Part of what makes this scene work so harshly watching it in 2017 is that we as an audience are so used to CGI for something like this. So when practical effects are used so well, it feels almost extra real. There are also a lot more subtle ways that the film injects unease into the audience than face peeling. The shot composition throughout is creepy, even when showing something mundane. It’s often symmetrical, an over-curated vibe playing into the surgical overtones of the film. This also speaks to the control of the doctor over all the characters, as though the films aesthetic is similarly restrained by him. The score is a wonderful mixed bag. A lot of it recalls Bernard Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock – scattered, jarring and disconcerts the viewer into a state of trepidation. But there is also a distinct sense of Wizard of Oz (1939) at various moments, potentially using some of the same music.
Verdict: The way that this film combines the mystery and horror genres makes it a must see. There’s a complexity to the themes and technical brilliance here which is filtered through simple, yet totally effective, style and stark early cinema grossness. Pint of Kilkenny