Georges Franju founded, together with Henri Langlo, the CinémathÈque Française. But not only was he an avid film lover, he was also an ingenious filmmaker, heavily influenced by the pictorial work of Jean Renoir and the surrealism of Jean Cocteau. His film Eyes Without a Face is probably one of the best and most influential horror films ever to come out of France. Although the film was released the same year as Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, a time when French cinema was aggressively deconstructing Hollywood models, Franju’s masterpiece owes more to the psycho thriller genre peppered with intelligence and influenced by art film sensitivity.
Professor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), a famous Parisian plastic surgeon, is anguished that his reckless driving caused a car accident resulting in disfiguring his beautiful young daughter’s face Christiane (Edith Scob). He becomes obsessed with the belief that he can restore her beauty. With the aid of his assistant, Louise (Alida Vali) they kidnap similar looking women to his daughter, to have their faces removed and to transplant unto his daughter’s face.
Eyes Without a Face succeeds by sustaining an atmosphere of dread and sinister obsession with sudden moments of graphic violence. The horror in the film is the shock of watching the surgical procedures in their entirety with clinical detachment. Just when you hope that the camera will turn away from the procedure, it locks onto the captive victims as their skin is lifted off like a mask.
Georges Franju juxtaposes contrasting elements resulting in many haunting images. The gore sequences juxtapose with beautiful and pensive moments such as Christiane fluttering like a ghostly angel of death about her mansion while wearing her white porcelain mask; the darkness of the professor’s lab in contrast with scenes full of dreamy light as in the perfectly lit mansion. The final sequence, a marvelous moment of poetry as Christiane frees the dogs who turn on her crazy father, while she walks out amid a flutter of freed doves.
There are also many unconfortable moments in this film. The surgery procedures are staged in brutally detailed but chillingly detached fashion; the professor's cellar is a kennel of caged howling dogs resembling a torture chamber; and there’s a scene just as effective as the classical unmasking in the 1920s version of The Phantom of the Opera.
The brilliant cinematography by Eugen Schuftan relies on noir lightning, stylized angle shots and a magnificient use of location shots reminiscient at times of Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad. The exquisite black and white imagery brings in added depth and complexity to the story.
All the performances are superb. Pierre Brasseur is both scary and moving, as Professor Genessier. Alida Valli is memorable as Louise, the professor’s twisted assistant, but it is Edith Scob as Christiane who cements the film together. Scob conveys an amazing range of emotions considering the fact that she is behind a mask throught most of the movie. She is both humanly tragic and at times ghostly ethereal.
With this bouillabaisse of art-house sensibility and horror, Eyes Without a Face achieves moments of poetic beauty while making you squirm simultaneously. A must see for anyone that appreciates landmark films.
French director with a poetic visual style and an important figure in film archival. In 1937 co-founded the Cinematheque Française, which became France's most renowned archive and where he worked full time until 1949. Franju's first film was the controversial abatoir documentary Blood of the Beasts, and other documentary shorts followed, such as Hôtel des Invalides and Mon Chien.
Franju's feature debut was the intense asylum drama Head Against the Wall in 1959, while Eyes Without a Face has become something of a horror classic. Subsequent work is less well known, although the superhero yarn Judex and the Jean Cocteau adaptation Thomas the Imposter were equally distinctive pictures.