Great Films: Les Yeux Sans Visage (Franju, 1960)

At once both beautiful and horrifying, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face has deservedly been recognized as one of horror cinema’s great treasures. The premise: a doctor, responsible for disfiguring his daughter’s face in a car accident, strives to find her a ‘new’ one by attempting to graft on ones taken from other women, whom he and his assistant kidnap and kill. However, attempt after attempt fails, and both doctor and patient become increasingly deranged.

What is it that makes the film so great? For a start, it functions so well on a horror level: some scenes, while not especially explicit, are too gruesome for even this hardened viewer to stomach. Secondly, the pacing of the film is night-on perfect; this is no splatter-fest, instead we have an almost Hitchcockian air of tension throughout, as we discover the full horror of what has been happening. It makes me think of Vertigo; the daughter Christiane’s haunted, ghostly quality echoing Kim Novak’s Madeleine/Judy, while Dr. Génessier’s manicly grim determination to succeed whatever the costs remind me of James Stewart’s increasing sense of detatchment from reality.

But surely the greatest aspect of the film, aside from these points, is the haunting imagery, which gives the film an almost fairytale-like feel. As fairytale-like as, for instance, Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, another great French film about beauty and loneliness; as with the beast in that film, we sympathise with Christiane’s isolation from society, but we also withdraw in horror at what is being done by others to restore her beauty. This dichotomy is a classic one in horror fiction, and is certainly a tradition which continues today; one thinks of the work of Mexican auteur Guillermo Del Toro, or Lucky McKee’s underrated May (2002).

The film was released in 1960, a landmark time in French cinema history, with the rise of the Nouvelle Vague and the apparent reinventions of the artform. Godard and Truffaut’s backgrounds were from film criticism. Franju was a similarly influential character from the French cinema scene – he was co-founder of the influential Cinémathèque Française – but he was no critic, not coming armed with theory under one arm and iconoclasm under the other; he was simply a man who loved films, and enjoyed the process of their production. That he was separate from the New Wave movement, in a sense isolated from his peers, is evident from the vast difference in styles between he and they. I always get the feeling that Jean Luc Godard loved the idea of being a film director; Georges Franju simply loved making films.

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