Skin Deep

By Lee Hill

eyes-without-a-face-georges-franju.jpgEyes Without a Face, 1960

Like Henri-Georges Clouzot, George Franju is a French director who makes it hard to make sweeping statements about the state of that country’s national cinema in the fifties. If one takes much of the polemic written by Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and others writing in Cahiers Du Cinema at the time at face value, it can often be easy to think that French films of the period were primarily stuffy, bourgeois and retrograde. Yet along with Clouzot, Robert Bresson, the early work of Alain Resnais and others, Franju created a series of films that while seemingly conventional on the surface, are simultaneously charged with a near transgressive power.

Franju had already acquired an international reputation with Blood of the Beasts, his documentary about a French abattoir, and Judex, a homage to the French silent film. Inspired to some extent by the popularity of Hammer horror films imported from the United Kingdom, Franju worked with a number of collaborators including Jean Redon, who wrote the source novel, Claude Sautet (who is also first assistant director on Eyes Without A Face) and Pierre Bouleau and Thomas Narcejac, the duo best known for writing the novel Hitchcock’s Vertigo is based on, on a number of scripts and treatments to create the taut, atmospheric and almost fairy tale like narrative that makes Eyes so much more than a simple horror film.

Given its problematic script development, Eyes has a diabolically simple storyline. Aided by his lover, Louise (played by Alida Valli with the kind of cool sensuality that Charlotte Rampling has made her trademark), the noted skin surgeon, Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) is conducting a series of illegal experiments to find the right skin graft that will restore the disfigured face of his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), to its original beauty. To the world at large, Christiane was killed in a car crash, but in actuality, the recovered body belonged to a woman who had been kidnapped and used as a raw material for a new graft. What pushes Dr. Genessier to such extremes is that he was successful once before in reconstructing the face of Louise, who is now eternally grateful and will do anything including murder to aid her saviour. 

eyes-without-a-face-georges-franju-2.jpgEyes Without a Face, 1960

On the surface this is the kind of plot material that has often been reduced to mere B-movie exploitation. Recently the emphasis on torture and disfigurement in a certain sub-genre of horror films has been dubiously revived in films like Hostel and Saw, which do their best to linger on every terrible moment of agony and pain experienced by the victims. Now that Eyes has been reissued again, one can only hope that a new generation can discover a film that aspires to the heights of Edgar Allen Poe or Jean Cocteau rather than the murk of Big Brother and Abu Graib.

Dr. Geneissier, Louise and Christiane form a dissonant family unit. Genessier’s love for his daughter and natural desire to correct her disfigurement through his surgical expertise has become perverted through pride. Louise, his chillingly loyal companion, represents an ideal of physical perfection that he was able to create once, but has become infuriatingly out of reach. Intriguingly Christiane, who is kept hidden in the large mansion that forms part of Genessiers’ hospital-estate, seems oddly complicit in the kidnappings and killings that have become routine in the name of medical research.

Although Christiane stumbles on what her father has been up to and tries to escape, she soon accepts the rationalisations of her father and agrees to the surgery. When her face is restored to a state of almost glacial youth, Christiane becomes more ethereal in demeanour and self-regarding. One simple shot of her falling asleep on her bedroom floor after looking at a fashion magazine speaks volumes. Similarly, with or without the mask Christiane often wears to hide her scarred face or to allow her new one to heal, she is dressed and posed like a kind of death angel.

eyes-without-a-face-georges-franju-3.jpgEyes Without a Face, 1960

What Franju brings to Eyes is a consistent tone that balances our natural revulsion at the butchery Dr. Genessier and Louise commit in the name of science and love with a very distinct, albeit chilly brand of empathy. The opening credit sequence in which we see Louise nervously driving through a lonely, windswept road to dump the body of one of the victims immediately puts our sympathies off balance. Since, as viewers we tend to automatically identify with the first character we see in a film, especially if they are attractive or in apparent danger, Louise seems less like a cold killer in the rest of the film than a once reasonable woman trapped in self-delusion. Equally the good Dr. Genessier wears a near constant expression of seriousness that implies both compassion and cold-bloodedness. The police, by contrast, who are attempting to solve the mysterious disappearances of young women in the area come across as slow witted and clumsy.

The compelling moral ambiguity of Eyes is aided in no small part by cinematographer Eugen Schufftan’s cinematography. Schufftan later won an Oscar for his work on Robert Rossen’s The Hustler. Few scenes take place during the day and the night time exteriors have a creepy naturalism. The operating theatre and kennels where the dogs Genessier experiments on are kept are also photographed in an appropriately hyper realistic manner. By exquisitely detailing the almost necrophiliac air of what Genessier’s seemingly regal house and clinic are established for, Franju and his technical team are able to evoke horror without really having to show the viewer much of it. When the grim face transplant surgery is glimpsed for a few brief minutes, the sequence is filmed in such a way that the image of a woman’s face being slowly peeled away from the flesh underneath takes on a surreal charge that is unsettling on several levels at once.

eyes-without-a-face-georges-franju-4.jpgEyes Without a Face, 1960

In December 2005, a 38-year-old French woman was given a successful face transplant in circumstances that fortunately only vaguely recall Eyes Without A Face. Yet even if science in real life has delivered the medical miracle that eludes Dr. Genessier, Franju’s film still manages to confront us with the way in which scientific research can easily be turned to nightmarish ends. In a film about reconstructed faces and masks, it is instructive and bracing to realise that it isn’t those which are the most terrifying, but the real faces of the characters in the Eyes which chill to the bone. Although seemingly handsome or attractive, the faces of Dr. Genessier, Louise and Christiane are the real masks – cold, implacable exteriors hiding madness, brute obsession and unspeakable loneliness. While many films try to explore this kind of psychological collapse (and usually end up merely exploiting it for the cheapest form of voyeurism), Franju is that rare filmmaker who has managed to deliver a tale that is entertaining, chilling and provocative at the highest levels.

Lee Hill is the author of A Grand Guy: The Art and Life of Terry Southern.