Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)

The concept’s not gonna win any humanistic subtlety awards: crazed surgeon and his loyal assistant kidnap beautiful young women and remove their faces with the hope of repairing the mangled remains of his once-beautiful daughter’s face.  It’s Frankenstein-esque pulp fiction you’d expect from the B-est of B movies.  And indeed, few if any of the characters in “Eyes Without a Face” have any redeeming qualities: Pierre Brasseur’s Professor Génessier is the epitome of your typical mad scientist (without the Colin Clive-esque overacting at least), and Alida Valli is his Igor (a very, very beautiful Igor, but a deranged Igor nonetheless).  Hell, even the Professor’s scarred daughter, the sympathetic Christiane, ain’t exactly innocence incarnate, willingly sitting by as dad carves up pretty, innocent faces like they’re turkeys on Thanksgiving.

But, there’s some artsy substance behind that lurid concept.  When you’re not seeing one of the professor’s not-so-voluntary procedures on his “patient” (in a scene whose candidness and attention to detail would be stomach-churning even by today’s standards), you’ve got a slow-paced, artsy little thriller whose creepiness subtly oozes out.  There’s that opening scene where Alida Valli drives a victim, face concealed, to her final “resting place”, with Maurice Jarre’s deceptively jolly score giving the scene that extra creepiness.  Or, there’s those long stretches of Christiane wandering around that creepy mansion, where even the elegant living room is made ominous via shadows and clever lighting, and where her father’s laboratory and dog kennel is something out of an expressionistic nightmare.

Some of that gets too slow and repetitive, as does much of the rest of the movie, like the dull police investigation featuring Christiane’s good-for-nothing love interest, and pretty much all of the acting is wooden and leaves a lot to be desired.  Hell, in the end the best “performance” in the whole thing was by an inanimate mask.  Yes, seen from afar, Christiane’s mask would be mistaken for an actual face, but close up it’s an eerie anti-face, fixed in something resembling a mix of apathy, contempt, curiosity, and all other unsettling emotions.  It’s representative of Christiane’s crumbling humanity at the hands of her father, and how she sees herself…after all, in one touching scene the only ones she can confide in are the dogs, who are incapable of judging her by her appearance.  How appropriate that the horror that is her ruined face is left to our imagination, and in its place is a blank slate that’s a hell of a lot more representative of the fragility of the human soul than some arbitrarily gruesome prosthetics and makeup.  “Eyes Without a Face” is an uneven film, often maddeningly slow-paced and stiffly acted (case in point, the shockingly sudden and bizarre ending), but one that at least sets itself apart from a single genre like “horror” or “drama” or “art film” in cleverly combining all those and more: it’s a “horror” film that, for better or worse, doesn’t just make you jump or cringe, but makes you think.


2 comments so far

  1. simon on

    you horrible machine…

  2. Allison on

    You call that restraint?

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