Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans visage) [DVD]
Director : Georges Franju
Screenplay : Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet (based on the novel by Jean Redon; dialogue by Pierre Gascar)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1960
Stars : Pierre Brasseur (Doctor Génessier), Edith Scob (Christiane Genessier), Alida Valli (Louise), François Guérin (Jacques Vernon), Alexandre Rignault (Inspector Parot), Béatrice Altariba (Paulette), Juliette Mayniel (Edna)
In the span of two years, 1959 to 1960, the horror genre changed forever in England, the U.S., and France. In that short time frame, each of these countries produced a horror masterpiece that fundamentally altered what was possible in a horror film both visually and ideologically. Not surprisingly, each film was disparaged by its country’s critical establishment and was only recognized as a cinematic landmark in the ensuing years.
Nineteen fifty-nine saw the release in England of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a powerful psychological thriller about a soft-spoken serial killer who uses his camera tripod as a weapon to kill young women and immortalize their terror on film. Powell elegantly and frighteningly captured the metaphorical essence of the horror genre, and his career was virtually ended by the vitriol heaped on the film by British critics. A year later, in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock shocked the hell out of audiences with Psycho, a film of such grandiose standing in the annals of film history that many have forgotten how critics had dismissed Hitchcock’s perverse masterpiece of audience manipulation and violent thrills as a sick, twisted waste of time and talent.
That same year, Georges Franju, cofounder of France’s esteemed Cinematheque Française, scandalized his country with his second feature film, Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans visage), the first straight-up horror film in France’s history. The story of a plastic surgeon who murders young women in a failing effort to restore the brutally disfigured face of his beloved daughter, Eyes Without a Face is a visually elegant, but deeply disturbing portrait of a scientist playing God for intensely personal reasons. In this respect, the film has a crucial component in common with both Peeping Tom and Psycho: All three films are about ordinary-looking men who murder out of some form of deep-seated compulsion. Thus, taken together, these films were crucial in the very modern project of relocating horror from the fantastical to the mundane, generating chills with the uneasy notion that the guy next door might be flaying the skin from someone’s face or being sexually aroused by self-made snuff films.
Pierre Brasseur, a 30-year film veteran, brings a tortured sense of gravitas to the role of Dr. Génessier, a surgeon whose daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), was almost killed in an automobile accident he caused. Christiane was horribly disfigured in the accident, and the creepy white mask she wears to hide her deformed visage stands in stark contrast to the enormous portrait of her with a dove on her finger that adorns the main room of her father’s mansion. In a fevered quest to restore Christiane’s physical beauty (and assuage his own guilt), Dr. Génessier condemns everyone around him by robbing other women of their faces. Working with his devoted secretary Louise (Alida Valli), Génessier kidnaps young women, drugs them, and then removes their faces and attempts to surgically attach them to his daughter. Like Psycho’s shower scene, Eyes Without a Face earned notoriety for its grisly depiction of the surgery, which Franju shot in coldly calculated long takes that still retain a healthy dose of shock value today. Initial audience were floored—some literally when they fainted—when Franju’s camera didn’t flinch as Génessier’s scalpel begins cutting through flesh, culminating in the uncanny image of the entire face being lifted off.
For all its sensationalism, though, most of Eyes Without a Face works on an insidiously muted level. Maurice Jarre’s creepy faux-carnival music establishes a sense of the surreal that works beautifully with Franju’s haunting imagery. There is an element of the gothic in Génessier’s isolated mansion with its hidden surgery room and kennel of braying dogs who are kept as surgical test animals, but overall the film generates tension and chills through its infusion of horror into the everyday.
Franju was also daring enough to suggest a conflicted humanity in his mad scientist by showing Génessier treating a young child. His intense love for his daughter, an all-consuming need to “resurrect” her, would seem to also contribute to his humanity, but Franju makes it work against by him showing how it becomes a murderous fanaticism. The uneasy conexistence of the humane and inhumane makes Eyes Without a Face a deeply challenging film from the standpoint of identification. Much like its virtuoso mixing of art film aesthetics and splatter film shocks, the film toys with the audience’s sympathies, with the only constant being the pity we feel for Christiane and what her father does to her in the name of love. Even though Génessier is a moral monster, his actions are nonetheless understandable, if indefensible.
|Eyes Without a Face Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||October 19, 2004|
|Eyes Without a Face is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio in a new high-definition anamorphic transfer taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. With the exception of some of blacks looking a bit too gray, this is an outstanding transfer with great contrast and excellent detail. The MTI Digital Restoration System has removed thousands of instances of dirt and scratches, leaving the image nearly pristine. It should also be noted that this is the complete, uncut version of the film without the snips and fuzzy optical zooms in the face-surgery scene that have marred most prints circulated in the U.S..|
|The French monaural soundtrack was mastered from the 35mm fine-grain master positive optical track and digitally restored. It has a good, clean sound, and Maurice Jarre’s freaky-haunting organ music has a nice depth to it. Some of the high end comes off a bit shrill, but that’s not surprising given the age of the film.|
|The supplemental section of the disc contains Georges Franju’s 1949 short documentary Blood of the Beasts (Le Sang des bêtes), which recounts in graphic detail the inner workings of Parisian slaughterhouses. It was one of Franju’s first films and a crucial counterpart to Eyes Without a Face and its mixing of visual elegance and grisly realism. Blood of the Beasts has been given a high-definition transfer from a duplicate negative, resulting in a well-detailed transfer, but one that could have used some digital restoration to remove speckling and scratches. There are also several excerpts of TV interviews with Franju, including one oddball segment from the early 1980s in which he discusses his preoccupation with the fantastical on what appears to be a French version of a late-night public-access horror show, complete with cheesy colored lights, bubbling test tubes, and a mad-scientist host. Excerpts from the 1984 documentary Les Grands-pères du crime feature interviews with crime novelists Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who contributed to the film’s screenplay. A stills gallery contains a nice selection of rare production stills, advertising materials and lobby cards, and other memorabilia. The two trailers offer a concise example of the elasticity of a film’s meaning: Simply compare the 1960 French trailer with the 1962 trailer for the edited, English-dubbed version of the film retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, which plays up its shock value and sticks it on a double-bill with q schlock shocker called The Manster.|
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Rialto Pictures and The Criterion Collection