This bizarre plastic surgery horror film is perhaps the most chilling expression in cinema of our ancient preoccupation with the nature of identity. What is remarkable about the film is not its thematic originality, for this is a familiar tale, (think the laboratory of Dr Moreau (played by Charles Laughton) in Erle C Kenton's ‘Island of Lost Souls’ (1932), but rather its imagery, its atmosphere, and the perfect rightness of the story’s narrative elements. The imagery and language of the clinic is a staple of the mad-doctor story, and director Georges Franju milks it for all its inherently sinister potential.
Director Georges Franju is a figure of immense importance in the history of French cinema, not primarily for his films (exceptional though many of these are) but for being the co-founder, with Henri Langlois, of the Cinematheque Française in 1937. Franju has a uniquely poetic and visually striking style, generally characterized by unforgettable images that owed a great deal to early cinema in general and German Expressionism in particular. A kind of a poignant fantastic realism inherited from surrealism, influenced by FW Murnau and Fritz Lang.
Franju had grown up during the French silent-film era when filmmakers such as Georges Méliès and Louis Feuillade were making fantastique-themed films, and he relished the opportunity to contribute to the genre. Franju felt the story was not a horror film; rather, he described his vision of the film…"anguish... it's a quieter mood than horror... more internal, more penetrating. It's horror in homeopathic doses."
During the film's production, consideration was given to the standards of European censors by setting the right tone, minimizing gore and eliminating the mad-scientist character. To avoid problems with European censors, the producers cautioned Franju not to include too much blood (which would upset French censors), refrain from showing animals getting tortured (which would upset English censors) and leave out mad-scientist characters (which would upset German censors).
All three of these were part of the film, presenting a challenge to find the right tone for presenting these story elements in the film. Franju hired the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac who had written novels adapted as Henri-Georges Clouzot's ‘Les Diaboliques’ (1955) and Alfred Hitchcock's ‘Vertigo’ (1958). The writers shifted the novel's focus from Doctor Génessier's character to that of his daughter, Christiane; this shift revealed the doctor's character in a more positive and understandable light and helped to avoid the censorship restrictions.
Although the film passed through the European censors, the film's release in Europe caused controversy nevertheless. The French news magazine L'Express noted the audience "dropped like flies" during the more harrowing scenes. During the film's showing at the 1960 Edinburgh Film Festival, seven audience members fainted, to which director Franju responded, "Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts." The film is shot in fantastic monochrome - If filmed in color, the horrific scenes [one of which packs the biggest punch since the slicing of the eye in Buñuel's Un chien andalou] would likely have been too much for audiences to handle, but in black and white, the scene becomes more like a clinical record instead of gory exploitation.
Pierre Brasseur, who plays Doctor Génessier; previously worked with director Georges Franju in the drama, ‘La Tête contre les murs’ (1958), again in a leading role playing a doctor. Renowned for playing outsized characters, Brasseur is probably best known in the anglophone world for ‘Le Quai des Brumes’ (1938) and his (semi-fictionalised) portrayal of the actor Frédérick Lemaître in ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ (1945). Edith Scob, who plays Christiane Génessier: the daughter of Doctor Génessier acts for the most part with her face covered by a stiff mask; no mean feat to act so powerfully with her eyes as she is effectively ethereal in the title role. She seems to glide through the hallways and down the staircases like a beautiful, fragile porcelain figurine. Like an actress in a silent movie, almost never speaking, as if she's too fragile to attempt speech. Alida Valli as Louise: Génessier's assistant, was an Italian actress who appeared in more than 100 films, including Carol Reed's The Third Man.
The late 1950s and early 1960s was a good time for horror movies. In the US ‘Psycho’ subverted all accepted rules of the genre; in the UK Hammer Horror was at the height of its success while ‘Peeping Tom’ pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. Like ‘Psycho’ and ‘Peeping Tom’ – which appeared in the same vintage year, 1960 – ‘Les Yeux sans visage’ sends out symbolic messages the repercussions of which on spectators are seemingly endless. The film followed in the wake of movies such as ‘Curse of Frankenstein’ and ‘Horror of Dracula’, which were popular with French filmgoers. These movies helped to loosen censorship restraints and pave the way for more graphically horrific films, but more importantly these films proved that a considerable market existed for horror cinema. With its dark themes, fairly graphic scenes and general air of nastiness, this was strong stuff at the time – and it remains uneasy viewing today.
Critical reaction ranged from praise to disgust. The film received an American debut in an edited and dubbed form in 1962 under the title ‘The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus’. Modern critics praise the film today for its “poetic poetic horror and tactful, tactile brutality", as well as being a notable influence on other filmmakers. The Encyclopedia of Horror Films noted the Cocteau influence, stating that "Franju invests the film with a weird poetry in which the influence of Cocteau is unmistakable".
The film has a beautiful orchestral score by Academy Award-winning Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago). He created a carnival-like score, fairy tale and fairground style – unusual for a horror movie – evokes the zither score for The Third Man. The film has influenced a handful of European films since its release. Spanish director Jesús Franco created films throughout his career that were influenced by the film, particularly ‘Faceless’ (1998). John Carpenter has suggested that the film inspired the idea of a featureless mask for the Michael Myers character in the slasher film series Halloween. Most recently , Pedro Almodovar's ‘The Skin I Love In’ owes a great deal to Franju’s classic.
Critic Raymond Durgnat commented, “It's an anguish film. It's a quieter mood than horror, something more subjacent, more internal, more penetrating.” Given that Les Yeux sans visage appeared in 1960, there is some initial plausibility in considering the film not only in the context of France's wartime experience, but also in light of her efforts to retain control of her colonial empire in the post-war period. One reading of the film from author Joan Hawkins in her book, ‘Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde’ notes that the Doctor uses the phrase ‘vrai visage’ that was also found in the racially charged language of French anti-Semitism. French Nazi sympathizers used this during the war to describe French racial and national purity...
And the question here, as in occupied France, is precisely how many people must be removed, how many people must be tortured and killed, to "restore" a true French face—a "vrai visage" that is always, it seems, constructed from the skin of the Other. Either way; whatever your interpretation of the film and its meanings – hidden or otherwise – experiments on human guinea-pigs in Nazi concentration camps or the French war in Algeria, with its abductions, torture and murders – rarely has a movie been simultaneously as beautiful and horrifying as Eyes Without a Face – a film reinforces, if this were indeed needed that horror films can be beautiful as well as wicked.