Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) will stop at nothing to restore his daughter’s face. Only Christiane’s (Edith Scob) eyes were left unscathed in a devastating car accident. Now she wears a porcelain white mask, not unlike what we saw Tom Cruise wear in Vanilla Sky. The doctor’s faithful assistant Louise (Alida Valli) tracks down women with faces similar to Christiane and lures them to their house. The goal is to quite literally remove the abducted woman’s face and graft it onto the remains of Christiane’s scarred mug. So far none of his attempts has been entirely successful.
It’s a lurid, sordid tale, with Génessier experimenting (not only on hapless women but even on dogs, an entire kennel of which are kept in his basement) in a vain, selfish attempt to improve his daughter’s appearance. The film’s primary surgical set piece still has the power to make you squirm, even though it was crafted a half-century prior to recent body-horror entries like The Human Centipede. The coldly matter-of-fact manner in which the doctor and his assistant slice up faces (convinced in their own minds that their methods will contribute to the greater good) is chilling.
Though she spends most of the film behind her expressionless mask, through body language and hauntingly pained eyes, Scob manages to elicit deep sympathy. What’s most remarkable about this feat is that she does so even before we really know how Christiane personally feels about her father’s efforts. The scene in which she connects with one of the captive canines upon visiting the basement kennel is heartbreaking. The film’s final images leave quite a bit to the viewer’s imagination, but Franju is by no means ethically ambiguous in the way he ends his story.
Eugen Schüfftan’s black-and-white cinematography looks more or less flawless in Criterion’s 1080p presentation. The odd bit of softness here or there is inherent in the original photography. Working from the camera negative, Criterion has once again lived up to their own lofty standards with Eyes Without a Face. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is nothing fancy but certainly offers clear audio throughout. Maurice Jarre’s score, which alternates between soothing and demented, is well balanced. The dialogue is in French with English subtitles.
Though not as supplement-packed as many Criterion releases, there are a few interesting pieces here. The main one is Georges Franju’s 1949 documentary Blood of the Beasts, an unpleasant little look at French slaughterhouses. Specific to Eyes Without a Face are interviews with Franju (3 minutes) and actress Edith Scob (8 minutes). There’s a vintage television piece featuring Franju. Co-screenwriters Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac talk about their career working together in a recent interview.
Both the French and U.S. theatrical trailers are included and the difference in marketing approaches is worth noting. For U.S. release, the film was retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and was packaged as a double feature with something called The Manster. I would actually love to see the edited/dubbed U.S. version, which apparently emphasizes the more graphic elements of Eyes Without a Face in an attempt to turn it into something of an exploitation film.
Les yeux sans visage (the film’s original French title) is a nightmarish horror film, but one that relies less on visual jolts and more on deep-rooted fears that most of us share. Once these images are seen, and the ideas behind them are fully absorbed, they’re likely to stay with you for some time.