Eyes Without a Face: Georges Franju teaches us about horror

I am not one of those ubiquitous ‘female-horror-film-buffs’ that seems to be the latest trend. My interest is in film and I am interested in any film if it is well made and excites me creatively. Completely coincidentaly, I have watched a lot of horror style or type films in the last couple of weeks. That is purely an accident, though I have to confess to enjoying my dabbles in the genre – even if they are what you might call the ‘easier’ end of the scale.

This particualr one I picked up because of the homage paid it in Almodovar’s The Skin I live In. I’d intended to see if before but hadn’t gotten around to it. This film is important mostly for being a ‘first’ in many different ways and for being such an inspiration. Franju’s The Blood of Beasts was also on the copy of the film I rented, and to be frank that was more horrific and for me, more aesthetically challanging / intellectually exciting.  But still – this is a cool film and one I was thrilled to catch.

Eyes Without a Face (French: Les yeux sans visage) is a 1960 French-language horror film adaptation of Jean Redon’s novel, directed byGeorges Franju, and starring Pierre Brasseur and Alida Valli.  During the film’s production, consideration was given to the standards of European censors by setting the right tone, minimizing gore and eliminating the mad-scientist character. Although the film passed through the European censors, the film’s release in Europe caused controversy nevertheless. Critical reaction ranged from praise to disgust.

The film received an American debut in an edited and dubbed form in 1962 under the title of The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. In the U.S. the film was released as a double feature with the horror film, The Manster (1959). The film’s initial critical reception was not overtly positive, but subsequent theatrical and home video re-release of the film increased its reputation.  Modern critics praise the film today for its poetic nature as well as being a notable influence on other filmmakers.

At night just outside Paris, a woman (Valli) drives along a riverbank and dumps a corpse in the river. After the body is recovered, Dr. Génessier (Brasseur) identifies the remains as those of his missing daughter, Christiane Génessier (Scob), whose face was horribly disfigured in an automobile accident that occurred before her disappearance. Dr. Génessier lives in a large mansion, which is adjacent to his clinic, with numerous caged German Shepherds (Alsatians) and other large dogs.

Following Christiane’s funeral, Dr. Génessier and his assistant Louise, the woman who had disposed of the dead body earlier, return home where the real Christiane is hidden. The body belonged to a young woman that died following Dr. Génessier’s unsuccessful attempt to graft her face onto his daughter’s. Dr. Génessier promises to restore Christiane’s face and insists that she wear a mask to cover her disfigurement. After her father leaves the room, Christiane calls her fiance Jacques Vernon (François Guérin), who works with Dr. Génessier at his clinic, but hangs up without saying a word.

In (for me) the creepiest part of the film,  Louise lures a young female student named Edna Grüber (Juliette Mayniel) to Génessier’s home, by promising her accommodation from friends of hers. Génessier chloroforms Edna and takes her to his secret laboratory, where he performs heterograft surgery, removing her face. The doctor successfully grafts the skin onto his daughter’s face and holds the heavily bandaged and faceless Edna against her will. Edna escapes, but falls to her death from an upstairs window. After disposing of Edna’s corpse, Génessier notices flaws on Christiane’s face. Her face grows worse within days; the new tissue is being rejected and she must resort to wearing her mask again. Christiane again phones Jacques and this time says his name, but the phone call is interrupted by Louise.

Jacques reports the call to the police, who have been investigating the disappearance of several young women with blue eyes and similar facial characteristics. The police have gained a lead concerning a woman who wears a pearl choker, whom Jacques recognizes as Louise. Inspector Parot (Alexandre Rignault), an officer investigating Edna’s disappearance, asks a young woman named Paulette Mérodon (Beatrice Altariba) to help investigate by checking herself into Génessier’s clinic.

After being declared healthy, Paulette leaves for Paris and is promptly picked up by Louise, who delivers her to Dr. Génessier. Génessier is about to begin surgery on Paulette when Louise informs him that the police want to see him. While the doctor talks with the police, Christiane, who has long been disenchanted with her father’s experiments, frees Paulette and stabs Louise in the neck. She also frees the dogs and doves that her father uses for experiments. Dr. Génessier dismisses the police and returns to his lab, where the dogs attack him, brutally disfiguring his face. Christiane walks slowly into the woods outside Génessier’s house with one of the freed doves on her hand.

There are some wonderful ghostly images and definitely the figure of Christine moving about the house and walking out into the woods at the end is creepy as hell. For the most part its directed according to the rules – but that is not where this directors talents lie. In context of the genre it represents its a very important film having been a great influence. IN terms of The Skin I live In (Almodavars latest) it’s become even finer to see a very great director take on this old classic and do some interesting things with it. Overall I had a great time.

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