Ravishing 'Eyes' returns in all its haunting
Once seen, never forgotten, "Eyes Without a Face"
is a film to haunt your dreams. Disturbing, disorienting,
quietly terrifying, it's one of the least known of the world's great horror
movies and, in its own dark way, a startlingly beautiful and artful piece
of cinema as well.
Directed by Georges Franju, "Les Yeux Sans Visage,"
to give it its original French title, was first released in 1959, when
its pulp subject matter and disturbing imagery led many European critics
to cavalierly dismiss it.
In the United States, its fate was even worse: It was
dubbed and released under the improbable title of "The Horror
Chamber of Dr. Faustus." Now, in a newly struck and re - subtitled
print courtesy of reissue specialists Rialto Pictures, its ravishing virtues
are on view at the Nuart Theater as they were intended, just in time for
Though this film and 1963's "Judex" have a
small but passionate following, Franju, who died in 1987, remains
underappreciated in this country. The co - founder, along with the better - known
Henri Langlois of the Cinematheque Francais, Franju worked for years as
a director of documentary shorts, including the slaughterhouse - themed
"La Sange des Betes," that earned him the respect of
the younger filmmakers of the French New Wave.
"Eyes Without a Face" was only Franju's second feature,
made when he was 47, and, he explained to an interviewer, it was filmed
under a series of restrictions. "I was told, 'No sacrilege because
of the Spanish market, no nudes because of the Italian market, no blood
because of the French market and no martyrized animals because of the
English market.' And I was supposed to be making a horror film!"
A surrealist who believed with compatriot Jean Cocteau
that "the more you touch on mystery, the more important it
is to be realistic," Franju's ability overcame all obstacles.
"What is artificial ages badly and quickly," he wrote. "Dream,
poetry, the unknown must all emerge out of reality itself. The whole of
cinema is documentary, even the most poetic. What pleases is what is terrible,
gentle and poetic."
As shot by the great cameraman Eugen Schufftan (who won
the Oscar for black and white cinematography for the very different "The
Hustler" two years later), "Eyes" is a series
of images that burn themselves into your subconscious. Every visual is
carefully thought out and brilliantly composed for effect, creating a
world that is simultaneously real and surreal. With its ability to go
deeply into our fears, this is a motion picture that captures the texture
of nightmare as convincingly as it's ever been done on film.
The idea for "Eyes" was worked on by several
writers, including first assistant director and future director
Claude Sautet as well as by Thomas Boileau & Pierre Narcejac (whose
novels became Clouzot's "Diabolique" and Hitchcock's "Vertigo").
A young woman, her eyes untouched but the rest of her face "a
vast open wound," has disappeared from a clinic where she
was taken after a terrible automobile accident. Meanwhile, her father,
the celebrated Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur, more impassive and unbending
than he was in "Children of Paradise"), lectures on
the future possibilities of the heterograft, the transplanting of living
tissue from one human being to another.
It turns out that the doctor's ideas are more than theoretical.
Helped by his diabolical assistant Louise ("The Third
Man's" Alida Valli), this brilliant madman has been kidnapping
young women in Paris, removing the skin from their faces and attempting
a transplant on the visage of his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), whom
he has hidden away in the attic of his chateau. How the relentless doctor
(who operates on a pack of constantly howling dogs in his spare time),
the devoted Louise and most of all Christiane cope with the effects of
his horrific experimentation is the frame this singular film is built
Despite its gruesome plot, one of the hallmarks of "Eyes"
is the austerity with which it's made, how little that is
blatantly horrific (including Christiane's face) Shufftan's discreet black - and - white
camera work allows us to see. The reason, Franju explained, is that he
envisioned "Eyes" as "an anguish film. It's a quieter mood
than horror ... more internal, more penetrating. It's horror in homeopathic
In part because of this delicacy, Franju and Shufftan's remarkable gift
for the visual makes this the spookiest of movies, filled with elegant
and poetic images that express longing, terror and despair. Aided by Maurice
Jarre's unsettling music, everything that appears on screen, from the
doctor's shiny black Citroen and Louise's shinier black raincoat to the
bird - like Christiane's oversize Givenchy housecoats to the film's final
image, one of the most unforgettable ever created, is meticulously calculated
to create unease.
The film's most classic horror scene is an unflinching look at one of
the doctor's blasphemous face - peeling operations. Though in terms of blood
and special effects the sequence is pristine, even artificial, by today's
dubious standards, it remains disturbing enough to make the skin crawl
far into the night.
Even more psychologically unsettling are the sequences that show Christiane
floating around the chateau like a dispossessed ghost, saying things like
"My face frightens me, my mask frightens me more." With good
reason. For over her ravaged face Christiane wears one of Franju's most
telling inspirations, a thin plastic mask with holes cut out for her untouched
eyes, a neo - Noh object both expressionless and expressive that reinforces
the powerful sense of poignancy and loss that is the film's most impressive
While most motion pictures have obvious predecessors and successors,
"Eyes" stands apart from all others, a film
alone. But be warned. Like a nightmare that never ends, this is a vision
of madness, loneliness and, yes, horror that, once seen, demands to be
viewed over and over again. It is that haunting, and that good.
'Eyes Without a Face'