Stealing beauty

French classic Eyes Without a Face is a precursor to contemporary horror

Horror is not a genre that springs to mind when you think of French films. Yet one of fright cinema’s most memorable shockers is a surprisingly elegant Gallic production from 1959.

The austere, creepy thriller Eyes Without A Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage) was directed by Georges Franju with the surreal, zombie pace of a terrible dream. Originally released in the U.S. in a dubbed version and with the schlocky horror title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, Eyes was initially written off as yet more unsavory kinfolk in horror’s inbred closet.

But Eyes is no ordinary gore-gazette. Like other memorable psychological horror films, from Repulsion to Carnival of Souls, Eyes disturbs more for its quietly building atmosphere of dread and its tranquilized, morally numb characters than from sudden shocks and ultra violence. Underscoring the film’s unsettling perversity is its darkly merry score by Maurice Jarre, which puts a macabre trimming on all the vivisection. The film was co-written by Claude Sautet and the team that penned the Diabolique screenplay and the novel of Vertigo, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.

Melding the mad scientist theme of Frankenstein with the serial killer horror to come, this sinister thriller concerns an esteemed plastic surgeon, Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), who claims to have developed a way to transplant living tissue from one person to another. But as usual in such medical horror, science is not a boon to society. It is instead an expression of individual obsession and monstrous ego.

Dr. Genessier’s “heterograft” procedure sounds miraculous, but the problem is, it involves some horrific extracurricular research. Genessier’s devoted assistant and lover, Louise (Alida Valli), prowls the Parisian boulevards for pretty faces. Louise is a seemingly conscienceless woman who lures lonely college students to the mansion for the doctor’s diabolical experiments, and has herself benefited from Genessier’s transplants.

A procession of comely French mademoiselles is lured to Genessier’s isolated estate. There, he slices the faces off of his living patients and transplants them onto his own daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), whose face has been gruesomely disfigured in a car accident. A question Eyes never answers is whether Genessier’s devotion to his daughter’s recovery is simply fatherly love gone mad, or just scientific ego run amok.

Some see the film’s horrors as a direct allusion to the real-life nightmares of Nazi doctors practicing gruesome experiments in WWII death camps. The film also hints at a vicious narcissism in Louise’s own brutally procured face in which loveliness at any cost entails murder.

Part of Eyes Without a Face’s unsettling quality is how it makes its “monster” into a sympathetic figure rather than some antisocial demon. Christiane wears a white plastic mask to conceal her injuries. But from her immobile, expressionless “face,” you get the message instantaneously: Christiane is already dead, much like her horror progeny, the amoral Jason in Friday the 13th. The mask gives Christiane an eerily calm, emotionless demeanor, as does her gliding gait, as she moves throughout her father’s estate cloaked in Givenchy dressing gowns.

While Christiane waits with increasing agitation for her new face, Genessier and Louise conduct one surgery after another, but each experiment results in infection and rejected grafts (time-lapse photography in one disturbing scene shows Christiane, wearing a fresh face that gradually leaks and decomposes). Franju uses the gory medical particulars of the surgery to elicit a special kind of revulsion. The operation sequences in Eyes foreshadow the work of director David Cronenberg (most obviously Dead Ringers), who also finds distinct horror in the invasive, nightmarish ventures inside our seemingly impenetrable flesh.

A scene where Louise and Genessier slice and then lift the entire epidermis from a young lady’s head is as skin-crawlingly repulsive as anything devised by contemporary effects wizards. Beyond that key moment of bodily assault, the nightmares in Eyes tend to be suggested rather than shown.

When a medical inspector and detective discover a young girl’s badly damaged body in the river (one of Genessier’s early, failed transplants), they nonchalantly discuss the possible origin of her decomposition:

“First the car accident, and then the severe facial burns, then all that time underwater ...” the doctor notes, sounding like he’s reading his grocery list.

The detective helpfully adds, “With the rats, Doctor. Think of the rats.”