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Blu-Ray Review: Eyes Without a Face

"The doctor will take your face/off."

In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock terrorised cinema audiences with Psycho – a film that revolutionized the horror genre and remains one of greatest psychological thrillers ever made. Psycho was however not the only film to cause an uproar that year. When the French chiller Eyes Without a Face (“Les yeux sans visage“) screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival, seven people people fainted during the infamous surgery sequence. Director (and co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française) George Franjus responded to these reports in the Frenchest way imaginable, saying that now he knew why Scotsmen wore skirts. Fifty-five years later, the gore of Eyes Without a Face will not cause anyone to lose conciousness, but the film still holds up. A delicate story and haunting stylistic achievements ensure that it remains relevant until today. The film’s influence has registered through the decades; most recently in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In.


The plot of Eyes Without a Face is riddled with genre conventions. Docteur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is the traditional mad scientist. Physically resembling a smarter version of Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski, he represents a calm, yet menacing authority figure. Like Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll, Génessier dabbles with dangerous medical experiments, in his case: facial transplantation, but he is not motivated by narcissistic delusions of grandeur. He is driven by paternal love. A car accident has left his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) badly disfigured; only the eyes remain intact. The world thinks she’s dead, but she is wandering the halls of the Génessier mansion like a prisoner in her own home. Until her father can provides her with a new face the mirrors in the house have been covered and she wears a white mask to escape her reflection in the mirror. With the help of the devoted Louise, the scientist lures pretty young women into his operating theatre and attempts to remove their facial features.

Eyes Without a Face is a stylistic masterclass. Franju builds an atmosphere that feels Gothic and tense. The cinematography reminded me of the fairytale world in Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, but this is a much nastier and grounded piece of work. The music composed by Franju’s regular collaborator Maurice Jarre also contributes to this. It may sound like a creepy version of the Curb Your Enthousiasm-theme tune, but his score alluring and repelling at once.


The loose, generic nature of the plot meanwhile leaves the meaning of Eyes Without a Face open for critical interpretation. Some writers have read the film as an allegory for political history. Génessier’s surgeries have been likened to Nazi medical experiments as well as the torture of the Algerian military during the Franco-Algerian war. Others have read the film in terms of gender politcs and interpret Christiane’s final insurgence as an act of feminist liberation. Ultimately, Eyes Without a Face is a film about power, control and oppression. Early on, Christiane laments that her father “always has to dominate.” The expressionless mask turns her into a powerless victim. Even the volume of her voice is muffled by her disguise. So she quietly accepts her father’s evil scheme, despite reservations, for a long time. The film shows how we can accept a morally corrupt authority in a desperate situation.


Special Features

The Blu-ray contains two short films directed by Georges Franju (1953’s Monsieur et Maame Curie and 1958’s La Première Nuit) in addition to a 50-minute documentary about the director’s career (Les Fleurs maladives de Georges Franju). Other special features include an interview with actress Edith Scob, an audio commentary by critic Tim Lucas and an illustrated booklet containing several fascinating essays by the likes of Kate Ince, Isabel Stevens, Roberto Cueto Llera, Raymond Durgnat, Kevin Jackson, and Michael Brooke.

  • Raises questions about power and authority
  • The cinematic style somewhere between film noir and Gothic horror
  • Maurice Jarre's haunting score
  • Some of the shock value will be lost on modern audiences

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