Thursday, April 18, 2013

Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage) ★★★★★

Georges Franju's 1960 thriller opens on a rainy night. A woman in a high-collared trench coat anxiously drives in the night's shadows as the windshield wipers rhythmically sway. A limp, thin, faceless body lurches in the back seat. ★★★★★
Finding the perfect spot, the strange woman takes the anonymous body and dumps it in the Seine. So begins Eyes Without a Face, a French horror movie that astonished audiences, critics, censors, and the film community.

Pierre Brasseur's stolid Dr. Génessier is a plastic surgeon; a talented surgeon researching skin grafts for patients of facial injuries. Heterografting, he has termed it. His research is world-renown and, we sense, on the precipice of success. But there is something ominous about the stone-faced doctor, a sentiment confirmed when we find out the woman from the strange, rainy night is Louise, Génessier's assistant. After we arrive at the doctor's large estate, we enter a sterile, white, brightly lit room where a young woman lays face down on her plush bed. Franju doesn't show her face throughout the entire scene during which we find out the young girl is Christiáne, the doctor's daughter who was in a serious car accident. It was the doctor's fault, and Christiáne reminds him of it. He orders her to put on the white, fitted healing mask that shows only her eyes. She looks porcelain and ghostly and speaks wide-eyed with a high, atmospheric voice.

Franju's story, based on a novel by Jean Redon and adapted for the screen by the duo that wrote Vertigo and Diabolique, is a thematic and fine-tuned horror Grimm-tale. The doctor isn't just a surgeon, but a mad scientist sending his henchwoman to do the dirty work and performing surgeries on vulnerable young women to find the right face for his malformed daughter. He has a shelter full of mad, barking dogs covered in bandages, provoked by Génessier's presence. Franju and his writers concoct an odd, underground world reminiscent of James Whale's Frankenstein, but far more mood-setting, with heightened yet subtle tones of expressionism.

Eyes Without a Face has a captivating plot, yes, but the lens through which the story is told is a beautiful and haunting one--eerie silhouettes, blurry POV's at their most disturbing, and details adding up to one horrific, glorious picture, a prelude to what would become torture porn. Les yeux sans visage was a turning point in horror, and after having watched it--my own eyes glued to the screen--it seems impossible to have ever watched and understood contemporary horror films with any frame of reference sans Eyes. It is a horror of imagery in the most frightening incarnation.

"Smile. Not too much."

About the Author

Ian Tilman Nichols

Author & Editor

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