Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on February 1, 2017
As we head into February, the month most closely associated with love in all its guises, it’s always good to remind yourself that too much emotional attachment can be a dangerous thing. If you really want to throw a curve ball into your pre-Valentine’s viewing schedule, allow me to direct your attention to one of the most twisted father-daughter relationships ever put on film: Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage) (1960), now the most famous film from the great Georges Franju and the gold standard by which other French horror films are measured.
Released at the very beginning of 1960 in its native country, half a year before Psycho (1960) sent shock waves through the cinematic world, this story of medical malpractice in its most extreme form is just as shocking and revolutionary as that Hitchcock classic. Something is amiss in Paris when the disfigured bodies of young women start turning up in the Seine, submerged in the dead of night by a sinister woman in a rain slicker named Louise (Alida Valli). As it turns out she works in the employ of Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), an ambitious and vainglorious surgeon who lives outside the city and still feels responsible for the car crash that destroyed the face of his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob). Now wearing an expressionless mask, Christiane wanders the eerily empty family home where the doctor and his assistant conduct dispassionate but horrifying experiments behind closed doors, with the barking of caged dogs filling the air.
One of those rare horror films that can appeal just as much to the art house crowd, Franju’s film was made when the director was at the peak of his powers with a solid script by Boileau-Narcejac, the thriller team whose work also formed the basis for Vertigo (1958) and Diabolique (1955). Incredibly this was only Franju’s second feature following the unflinching mental hospital drama Head Against the Wall (1959), but he had long been crafting excellent narrative and documentary short films for many years including the infamous and still shocking Blood of the Beasts (1949). He managed to follow this with the wonderfully poetic and charming period crime film Judex (1963), which brings back Scob but plays with the slippery question of adaptable morality and recurring bird imagery found in this film as well.
A lot of ink has been spilled from horror writers over the years about the virtues of this film including the iconic but dialogue-light performance of Scob, who performed a nifty reference to her character here in the final moments of Leos Carax’s marvelous Holy Rollers (2012). What’s especially remarkable is how she and Brasseur sell the intense bond between father and child through a minimum of dialogue, and the destructive measures he takes to restore her face (even more shocking in the international cut now commonly available) serve as emotional lacerations for Scob, conveyed mainly through her limpid eyes staring out of her mask.
You may also notice a very famous name behind the camera here in the form of composer Maurice Jarre, who was destined to take the world of film music by storm two years later with his Oscar-winning Lawrence of Arabia (1962) work and a slew of other classic scores. This film was also the centerpiece of a nifty Franju-Jarre trilogy of sorts between Head Against the Wall and Judex, and main themes here are insidiously catchy compositions including a rollicking but deeply sinister main title and a gorgeous, wistful theme for Christiane that serves as the last sound we hear in the closing moments. Oddly enough, another participant would beat Jarre to Oscar glory a year earlier: Eugen Schüfftan, a remarkably gifted cinematographer who manages to perfectly juggle the antiseptic, clinical and bright look of the doctor’s operations and the beautiful chairoscuro lighting that defines the more surreal and poetic passages. Scob’s mask alone is a godsend for any cameraman with its sleek, artificial surface allowing endless possibilities for light and shadow. A regular collaborator with directors Edgar G. Ulmer and Marcel Carné, Schüfftan would win an Oscar for his remarkable black-and-white cinematography for Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961).
One aspect of the film that doesn’t get remotely enough credit is the performance of Alida Valli, a magnetic Italian actress who had gained some international fame with her role in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and a less-known stint for David O. Selznick in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947). If ever there was an actor who could burn a hole through the screen with their eyes, she’s the one; utterly intimidating when she wanted to be but so hypnotic in her intensity, she’s also called upon to use her eyes to convey much of her character’s complicated inner life. That becomes especially useful when we find out exactly what makes her tick (a little twist conveyed via a key costume prop) and when she meets her final destiny in the film, a subdued but unnerving moment that still had audiences gasping when it made a return to American theaters as a prestige release in 2003 from Rialto Pictures.
That’s a far cry from its initial appearance on American shores in 1962, usually seen in dubbed and edited form as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus on a double bill with The Manster (1959). Nevertheless the film was a popular success throughout Europe and many other areas of the world, and its influence was felt reverberating through the horror genre for years with a plethora of similarly plotted “scientist kills and performs experiments to restore a loved one’s beauty” yarns like Jess Franco’s The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), Robert Hartford-Davis’s Corruption (1968) and Claude Mulot’s The Blood Rose (1970). Most recently the plot was used again with a number of unexpected new wrinkles by Pedro Almodóvar for his excellent thriller, The Skin I Live In (2011), which brings the queasy gender politics of this storyline right up to the surface with devastating results.
If you haven’t experienced the uniquely chilling beauty of Eyes Without a Face which is streaming as part of The Panic Room theme on FilmStruck through March 10, 2017, there’s no time like the present. In fact, if at all possible, I’d recommend that you cue this puppy up and see it with as many friends as possible in the room. It’s the kind of film that thrives on audience response with each little reaction building to a climactic crescendo best experienced with other moviegoers, no matter the size or state of the screen you’re watching.
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