Director: Georges Franju
Stars: Pierre Brasseur (Docteur Génessier), Alida Valli (Louise), Edith Scob (Christiane Génessier), Juliette Mayniel (Edna Gruber)
Genre: Horror / Mystery
Known in English-speaking circles as Eyes Without A Face, Georges Franju’s second feature film Les Yeux Sans Visage is, for me, one of the greatest horror films of them all, and one of the more influential since it’s 1960 release. It’s also one of the most respectable (though that certainly wasn’t the consensus on its release) having earned a justified reputation, via Franju’s judicious eye, of refined, haunting elegance. This is horror of the most grimly beautiful stripe; gothic, macabre, but with a sense of mournful refinement. The kind of film you can savour, best enjoyed with the lights dimmed and a good bottle of red at hand.
If that sounds a mite pretentious then forgive me. Revisiting this masterpiece is something I’ve been awaiting for well over a year, and now the long-promised BFI edition has reached shelves in the UK; beautifully remastered and generously packaged. So returning to this film comes with a sense of ceremony. Occasion. And how the film fulfills the expectations weighing upon it.
Taking its cues in part from the classic threat of masked menaces prefigured in the likes of The Phantom of the Opera, Les Yeus Sans Visage muddies the waters, folding in a more modern-feeling human predator aspect that was horror’s burgeoning focus of the era (Psycho and Peeping Tom also premiered in 1960) while administering an additional and deeply unnerving surgical element. Indeed, the peculiarly persistent tendril that is surgical horror would have this film as its crowning achievement, it’s ghoulish presence felt down through the decades via the work of (among others) David Cronenberg (Rabid, Dead Ringers) right up to more modern fare both respectable (American Mary) and less-so (The Human Centipede series). While the incomparable experience of Franju’s dark tale so clearly preoccupied filmmakers such as Jesús Franco and Pedro Almodóvar that they both created films that draw heavily from its plot and stylistic trappings. I can’t say I’ve seen Fracno’s work, but Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In is one of this decade’s must-see thrillers.
The film opens with Franju keeping the viewer on the back foot. We are subtly menaced from the get-go as a frantic-seeming woman drives a car with a darkly lit passenger in the back. We’re not sure who is in danger here, but we assume one of them – if not both of them – are at risk. Another vehicle seems to be pursuing them. And all the while the film’s score feels anachronistically out of step with the times; a hurdy-gurdy throwback we might more fittingly associate with the silent era. It’s the kind of thing that would suit the grim curiosities of David Lynch’s equally antiquated The Elephant Man two decades later. Indeed if any film made since Les Yeus San Visage conjures such a specific feeling of having emerged out of time, it is Lynch’s Victorian-set biopic. The difference is that Lynch’s film intends to transport the viewer into the past. Franju, on the other hand, is extending a story of disturbing modernity, fracturing that sensibility through music to distress the viewer. It works.
It emerges that the figure in the backseat of this car is a corpse, and the driver, Louise, is disposing of it. Her own slick black raincoat triggers other connections in our minds. She looks half-prepared for disposal, wrapped in plastic herself. The story reveals her as an Igor-like henchman to sinister recluse Docteur Génessier. Franju’s fable appears to be a throwback to the classic horrors of old – a country estate doubling for a creepy castle – yet the modern motif here turns out to be plastic surgery, as Génessier has Louise kidnap beautiful young women in order to steal their faces, hoping to work his mercurial magic on his deeply disfigured daughter Christiane, prisoner of said country estate.
Louise, played by Alida Valli, will likely prove familiar to horror fans reaching back to Les Yeus San Visage, as this marked a turning point in her career. Previously known for more conventional leading roles, Valli was not yet 40 but was being supplanted by her more youthful counterparts. Franju’s film would lead to a prolific stream of secondary character parts, and several crone-like characters, not least of all in the likes of Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno. Here she is strikingly callous, not merely a hired hand. There’s a subtle element of predatory malice to her deeds, even if they are Génessier’s actions by proxy.
Her motive is clearly a level of infatuation or devotion to Génessier. He is blind to this of course, or else totally unaffected by it. His view is clouded by his obsessive behaviour. The criminality and injustice of his ‘work’ is an unfortunate by-product in his eyes. Génessier’s compulsion to reconstruct the face of his daughter comes from a place of love, perhaps, but an incredibly stilted love. More-so given his daughter’s striking resemblance to his deceased wife, seen early on in the film in portrait holding a dove. This element is not insignificant as those who will have made it to the film’s finale will note.
However, for genre fans the film’s key sequence will certainly be the one in which Génessier removes the face of one of victim Edna in order to transplant it onto Christiane’s. Even by today’s standards the sequence feels shocking, and wince-worthy. Yet it is far from gratuitous. The reality is borne in the details and the acting choices. Witness how daintily Génessier presses his fingers against the skin as he works the scalpel around the prone Edna’s jaw line. It is a delicate touch which makes the action resonate as real and stomach-churning. The black and white makes the violence of the procedure seem all the more real; in colour the gaudy, likely-unconvincing fake blood would have nullified the effect. I watch a fair bit of horror, but few films or sequences genuinely horrify me. The surgery scene in Les Yeus San Visage sure does.
Yet importantly – vitally, even – Franju’s film is not all about this one daring sequence. The film as a whole is profoundly engrossing and moving, from the ornate production values and locations (which prove rife with eerie shadows) through to the expert casting. The crowning glory of which is Edith Scob. Her Christiane is an exemplary piece of physical performance. With a white mask covering her face for much of the film (either that or a more briefly glimpsed prosthetic mask of facial scars – all the more shocking for the work the audience must mentally do to complete it), Scob acts through her eyes and her body language alone. She moves through the film with the most delicate of touches. In the scenes where she visits the giant dogs Génessier keeps beneath the house near his operating theatre, she is reminiscent of some Disney princess gliding toward danger. This adds to the fairy tale like quality of Les Yeus Sans Visage and lends Scob the feel of a great actress of the silent era inexplicably transposed to the 1960’s.
Franju’s films tend to be removed from reality in this way – his cinema is some of the most dreamlike I’ve encountered. His follow-up, the equally brilliant Judex, would further extend his evident love of silent cinema, taking the form of a great cat-burglar escapade. For Les Yeus Sans Visage, however, it is clear that his aim was to assemble something timeless by skewing imagery both past and present. Masks in cinema would never be the same again. It is near impossible once having seen this film to not see it echoing in any other since which has used such a motif. Such is the profoundly iconic nature of their appearance here. Even otherwise innocuous scenes are strangely menacing. Tension and suspense are bound up in the little pieces. They are building blocks stacked by Franju leaving us suspended at great height. A sense of vertigo achieved, he lets his dark fable play out with us teetering madly.
Excuse the hyperbole. In reality Les Yeus Sans Visage is not quite so consistently terrifying. But it does transport the viewer into it’s world of darkness. We become Christiane, wandering glacially around sinister interiors, waiting for the glimmer of the knife or the jaws of the dog. Impending doom permeates this film, an indelible presence that has made it last these long years and will ensure it is revered for many to come. It has what the best of cinema has to offer; the capacity for wonder. Until next time I’ll be looking to the wooded hills, to see if I can’t glimpse Christiane running freely between the trees.