George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) is one of the most beautiful and unsettling movies ever made. Its story is pure pulp: when Dr Genessier, a successful surgeon, has a car accident, in which his daughter Christiane’s face is irreparably damaged, he kidnaps and kills a series of young women in the hope of successfully grafting one of their faces onto hers, restoring her original beauty. It’s also pretty gruesome: the camera (unlike the audience) never flinches as the professor carefully cuts away the entire face of one unfortunate candidate, leaving only her eyes intact.
But what makes the film so powerful is its blend of the everyday and the poetic, establishing a world that’s both thoroughly quotidian and mesmerically dreamlike. The kidnaps, for example, are carried out by Genessier’s assistant Louise, who selects her victims from the cafes and cinemas of Paris. The morgue, where Genessier fakes his daughter’s death, feels absolutely real. Genessier himself, however, lives in a mist-wreathed chateau outside town, where Christiane (Edith Scob) weeps behind her exquisite, blank-faced mask, while Maurice Jarre’s score is pure demented fairytale, full of carousel waltzes and menacing strings. It’s like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho crossed with Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.
This combination of the familiar and the fantastic denies us any sense of safety: by taking us outside the usual structures of genre, Franju never allows us to become complacent. The film overturns almost every traditional role: the doctor is a killer, the police obstruct justice, dogs turn on their owner, and beauty is a curse. But these roles, too, are complex. Genessier is not some B movie monster: despite his crimes, he is a compassionate doctor and a guilt-stricken father. Christiane is certainly a victim, but she is also, for much of the film, a complicit one. Nor is the audience innocent: we want to see the horror that lurks beneath Christiane’s mask. But equally, we want her to be happy — but at what cost? Must the beauty also be the beast?
So what is Eyes Without a Face: horror film? fairy tale? fable? It has elements of all of these. Franju himself called it “… an anguish film. It’s a quieter mood than horror, something more subjacent, more internal, more penetrating”. Most horror movies are collective: we watch, we jump, we scream, we are released into the world again, the mysteries resolved. Eyes Without a Face, on the other hand, is personal and intimate, as much a seduction as a shock. And it maintains its mystery: it’s closest, perhaps, to films like Celine and Julie Go Boating or Mulholland Dr. It creeps into your subconscious and nests there: a dream from which, despite the terror, you’re not quite sure you want to wake.
UPDATE: There’s an interesting piece about the film over at David Cairns’ blog Shadowplay.