Recommended Viewing Situation:
Daintily walking over your father’s mutilated body.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Format: 35mm Black and White film.
Director: Georges Franju.
Writer: Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Jean Redon, Claude Sautet, Pierre Gascar.
Cinematographer: Eugen Schüfftan.
Playfully eerie and assuredly ‘Hitchcockian’, Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without A Face) is a brisk French fantasy slasher that is more gruesome and blood-curdling than most modern horror films to date. Adapted from Jean Redon’s novel and directed by the legendary Georges Franju (co-creator of the Cinémathèque Française film archive in 1937), the film follows the desperate actions of esteemed surgeon Docteur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) and his oddly doting assistant Louisse (Alida Valli), as they frequent Paris in search for the perfect donor to replace the disfigured face of Génessier’s daughter, Christine (Edith Scob). Grappling with hubris, misogyny and love, the actions and protestations of the film’s players underpin turmoils of the past socio-political and the contemporary psycho-social.
The movie’s characters are conflicted and understated in ways apparent only after the film is over. Edith Scob is breathtaking to watch; confined to a life behind a mask and shunned by Parisian standards of beauty, she conveys intense loneliness, isolation and envy through her eyes alone. Her performance is both heartfelt and unnerving, a nuanced execution only matched by Alida Valli as Louisse. The character’s willingness to carry out the twisted whims of Dr Génnessier is not that of a sociopath, but that of a lover, something that is never explored but certainly implied by the delicacy of Valli’s acting. It is befitting that this film be lead by its female actors, as the caricatures of the misogynist Paris police force, and indeed the uselessness of the male characters, are a progressively comic counterpoint to the film’s reeling gore. That is not to forget the impeccable direction of Georges Franju, or the work of cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, whose combined efforts shape an uncanny valley of shock and sorrow seamlessly throughout.
Les Yeux Sans Visage presents with some interesting subtext, as alluded to by critic Philip French: Dr Génnessier’s holding cells for his canine test subjects might be in fact a commentary on the horrors of Auschwitz and World War II. The literal symmetry of Scob’s face in one particular scene certainly nods towards the authoritarian impulses of Aryan Nazism. Anti-war war rhetoric is a significant theme, although it seems to serve as a catalyst for bigger ruminations on post-war existence; what is humanity after global chaos; has this chaos diminished our ability to be empathetic outside of the individual or the atomic family unit? For this reviewer, Dr Génnessier embodies these concerns, motivated by a composite of guilt and pride, we watch him fail to empathise with the closest humans to him. Ironically, the motivations of a stoic father destroyed by guilt are very empathetic for the audience of Les Yeux Sans Visage, making even Gennessier sinisterly relatable. Ultimately, this film deals with postwar numbness; it attempts to communicate the unrelatable in a medium that finds traction in relation at its core.