Eyes Without a Face (French: Les Yeux Sans Visage) is technically a French-Italian co-production, but it was made by a predominantly French crew, by a French director, and is told in French. Plus, if we want to talk the style and feel of French vs. Italian horror, Eyes Without a Face is about as far on the French side as humanly possible. So, you know, deal with it.
In the annals of time, 1960 might just go down as the greatest year ever for horror filmmaking. We have the obvious game-changing genre classics like Psycho and Peeping Tom from the English speaking world (poetic that those two harrowing critiques of the directorial gaze came to fruition in the same year) and the Italian film industry bursting forth from the womb with Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. The ’60s were also the greatest decade for Japanese horror, and Nobuo Nakagawa’s1960 release Jigoku saw that trend kick off in ultra-fine style. In the midst of this, a film had to be something special to hold its own, and perhaps one of the most special horror releases of all is Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, a work of horror wholly at odds with the norms of the genre.
Franju’s classically-trained but down-to-earth style is intoxicating, intentionally treating the material with the soft delicate hand of a piano player prone to liberating fits of more chaotic frenzy. He proves able to switch on a dime, creating a film at once modern for 1960 and elegantly timeless. Moments of carnage ring out, but its the thoughtful finishing-school haze that evokes Lewtonesque minimalism and Victorian era dreaminess that sweeps over the film and sticks in the memory the longest. Other than Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie, Eyes Without a Face may just be the most impressionistic horror film ever released.
The director’s scintillating, luxurious quality is the chief means by which the dubious concept of the film ascends to new heights. If it sounds like a B-movie, that’s because it basically is. Pierre Brasseur stars as Doctor Genessier, a professor turned mad scientist who is driven to murder after he causes severe, seemingly irreparable damage to his daughter Christiane’s face. Christiane, played by Edith Scob in a wonderfully sad, empty blank slate of a performance, is wracked with melancholy and turns inward. Her father, backed by the wonders of B-movie science (and the endless possibilities of the variation of movie science unique to the late ’50s and early ’60s no less), turns to more drastic measures to find a new face for his daughter (who spends most of the film wearing an expressionless mask, but more on this later).
It’s a less than respectable premise for a film, but then good filmmaking makes a film, not a good concept, and some of the finest films ever made happen to draw their teeth from the same basic ideas that have elsewhere produced hack-work. It’s the execution that matters, and Eyes Without a Face is a work of almost note-perfect execution. Franju’s style helps the work glide along without losing the bottom-end, abstracting the horror without ever sacrificing the thrills and chills. It is, at least by the standards of the genre, a lethargic film, but only insofar as Franju has a much greater investment in probing the more somber, fatalistic regions of horror and exploring the genre’s internal sadness with a oneiric diaphanousness.
He never does so more than when Scob is on screen, her face hidden in the nether realms of a mask that transfixes to her face like a talon to our hearts. Filtered through the soft, hazy lighting Franju coats the film in, the mask attains the wayward luster of pure non-existence, creating an empty canvas for us to debate with the film and unspool our emotions onto. It’s a positively ghastly effect, rumoring toward the abstract idea of poetic sadness yet hitting like a ton of bricks. It’s hard to refer to Scob’s work as performance, but the effect of that mask on her torn features is uncommonly hypnotic, her eyes suggesting everything we need to know about her soul and her hopeless implication in her father’s scheming insanity as we search for any hint of movement in her face or meaning in her actions.
It would be easy to reduce Franju’s achievement to Scob’s though, but he has much more to say, and many other ways of saying it. Few films suggest their intent and effect from such subtle, overpowering gestures. The film is a masterpiece of implication. He opens by winding us down a French country road that implies nowhere but pure limbo as a tingle all but rolls across the screen, titillating with fright and ghoulish chills but finding a perverse joy underneath. The look of the film, noirish if it weren’t so glowingly sensuous and soft, never demands we know where we are; it merely gestures, and leaves us hanging as we are drawn in to its snare unawares. The string music, meanwhile, is uncommonly fit for a director like Franju, a man who delighted in playing with the audience and sending them off on a slope to greater worry; it’s icy and damning while also frenetic and fun, a perfect storm of mixed emotions that taunts us from the very beginning. Everything approaches us on an almost subliminal level. If Franju was particularly indebted to Lewton’s own brand of distinctly French horror, this film is the most Lewtonesque he (and arguably anyone, including Lewton himself) ever got.
It’s a sterling work of construction, a film where every moment perfectly captures the tone of the finished whole: chilly and plaintive, completely seductive and even romantic, and always ready to steer off course into something more devilish. That he does, taking us so far down the calming rivers of lateral tracking shots and camerawork that suggests drifting into and out of sleep, seducing us and lulling us to bed. Then, when we least expect it, he rips the carpet out from underneath and throttles us with it. Classy horror doesn’t have to mean sterile horror it turns out, and intellectual technique is not necessarily a stand-in for true feeling. Eyes Without a Face is a film of close, uncomfortable feelings and sensations, all of them intentionally vague and predominantly unstated. It approaches us like the abstract concept of a film, feeling forever unfinished and forever left undone. It’s a work with no sense of resolve. All the better to float off the screen into our minds, carve out a space for itself, continue growing and clawing, and never leave.