Welcome to the latest edition of Criterion Cuts, the weekly series where I take a look at one of the many films available on Hulu Plus from the massive library of everyone’s favorite arthouse and foreign film distributor, the Criterion Collection.
This is the fourth week of October, and we continue our month of horror with another genre movie. Thankfully for all of us, October is five Mondays long this month, so we have one more movie before we reach the end, something special I’ve been saving for just such an occasion. But we still have a great movie this week (spoiler!) so let’s get started.
Eyes Without A Face (1960)
I think it’s only fair to start with some background before we begin. You see, by 1960 horror films (specifically the Hammer horror films of the UK) were pretty big in France but there were no real examples of horror coming out of France itself. There was a perception among the French intelligentsia, that while horror movies were all good fun, no French director worth his salt would be caught dead making one.
Producer Jules Borkon, determined to try anyway, bought the rights to the French horror novel Les yeux sans visage with the express determination to make a film that would stand as France’s earnest attempt at the genre. He brought the novel to director Georges Franju, a director mostly known for documentaries. Borkon’s guidelines were to not be too gory (to get past French censors, hilarious given today’s French horror industry which mostly includes extreme slasher variants), to not include animal torture (a sore point for English censors), and to leave out any mad scientists (something the German censors were still understandably touchy about). Then he handed him a novel about a mad scientist who experiments on animals and cuts the faces off of people.
How could any adaptation trying to meet all those guidelines be good? Well, to be fair, it sounds like a tall order, but Eyes Without A Face is just that–an impressive entry into the genre, not only good in its own right but standing as representative of much of the French cinema that had come before.
Eyes Without A Face begins with a woman dumping a body in true mystery fashion, left disfigured for the police to find. The police notify a Dr. Génessier, a noted surgeon with revolutionary (and untested) ideas on living tissue transplant, whose daughter Christiane was similarly disfigured in a car accident before her disappearance. Dr. Génessier identifies the body as his daughter before returning home to his mansion in the country which also serves as his clinic.
Génessier comes home to his assistant Louise, the woman we already saw dumping the body. Upstairs, hidden away in her bedroom, is Christiane herself, alive and well aside from a face that she keeps hidden under a white mask. The dead woman, we discover, is one of Dr. Génessier’s failed experiments to graft a new face for Christiane. But he is determined to try again, and sends Louise out to ensnare another young ‘volunteer’.
Given the challenge director Georges Franju had in adapting the material, it’s no surprise that the story centers mostly on Christiane, locked away in her house like a princess out of a fairy tale. What this does to the story is removes much of the outright horror by tipping most of the movie’s hand early on, leaving us in a situation that is more melancholy than horrific, Christiane distressingly sympathetic despite her father’s murders. She seems as much a victim of his ambition as any of the women he uses for his experiments.
The next woman lured in by Louise is a studnet named Edna Gruber, in a lengthy sequence where we see Louise offer kindness after kindness to Edna, wearing her down finally with the promise of a cheap room she can rent. Bringing her to Génessier, he chloroforms Edna and takes her to the laboratory in his clinic. In these, some of the most notable scenes in the film, we see Christiane approach a drug-addled Edna without her mask, a blurry image of scarred, open wounds all over Christiane’s face the only glimpse of the true lengths of her deformity.
And then, with a medical objectivity that only heightens the horror, we see much of the surgery to remove Edna’s face, a lengthy procedure that dives straight into medical and body horror, all stretching skin and actual face peeling. During it’s premiers in both France and Scotland there were reports of audience members fainting during this scene, and it’s easy to see why. Sensibilities have certainly changed in the past fifty years, but even now the scene is realistic and graphic enough to affect anyone not completely inured to such sights.
Edna wakes up with what is left of her head wrapped in bandages, only to find a mirror and then leap from an upstairs window to her death. Christiane seems to have come out of the procedure with the new face Génessier so desperately wants to give her, only to segue into a series of images Génessier narrates over charting the slow disintegration of the new face as it’s rejected by Christiane.
The rest of the film comes to a fairly swift resolution, with the police slowly catching on and sending in a young woman to act as bait to prove that Louise and Génessier are abducting women. At the same time, Christiane has become so tired of her father’s repeated experimentation, lashes out against her captors. At the end of the film, she turns loose the animals Génessier had been experimenting on, walking into the woods with freed doves on her hands, still masked, as the freed dogs savagely attack and disfigure Génessier.
To continue with some historical context, when the film premiered in France it was instantly shot down by every French critic, seen as a betrayal of the artistic sensibilities of French cinema in favor of genre schlock. One critic was even reportedly fired for daring to praise the film. It fared better in the UK and overseas, despite considerable editing of the content for an American release. It took years for people to come around to the film, which is surprising given how much a part of French cinema it seems, evoking to me at least some of the more fantastic filmmaking of Jean Cocteau.
Eyes Without A Face has an interesting history, but for all of that its key triumph is simply being a good movie, effective in its mood and its characters, shocking even still when it wants to be, sympathetic in turn. It is dizzying in its storytelling, with cinematography that seems unreal without overplaying with soft focus or unclear direction (cinematography Eugen Schufftan would go on to win an Academy Award two years later for his work onThe Hustler, a classic in its own right) and a strange, jarring score by Maurice Jarre with one notable, carnival-style theme that reminds me of Curb Your Enthusiasm in its gleeful inappropriateness, linked here for your pleasure:
And it was not without its impacts in the US and abroad, too. John Carpenter has gone on record as saying that Christiane’s immobile human mask was the inspiration for the Michael Meyers mask in Halloween, and John Woo seems to have not only lifted some of the dove imagery but the whole concept of face stealing for his greatest Hollywood film, Face/Off. It’s not hard to understand why, either. The strange, gothic fairy tale nature of it brings to mind similar film adaptations of Poe or even the classic Universal horror monsters, dark storybook tales of good and evil and how horror can and does lurk in everyday experiences. And that is, at its heart, the greatest thing horror (or movies in general) can aspire to.