“Smile. Not too much.”
‘Eyes Without a Face’, directed by Georges Franju in 1960, is a French-Italian horror movie that tells the macabre story of a plastic surgeon who takes ever more extreme steps to repair the face of his daughter. Pierre Brasseur plays Doctor Génessier, the doctor who begins to kidnap women with the aim of grafting their removed faces. He lives with his masked daughter and his loyal assistant, Louise. Through the course of the film his failed attempts slowly drive his daughter insane and attract the attention of the police, leading to a brutal climax. It’s a tense film, but full of surprisingly ethereal imagery. Edith Scob’s performance as the face-less Christiane is extraordinary, able to emote powerfully, despite her being concealed by the impassive mask. The film revolves around a notorious central scene in which Génessier is shown operating on a victim. He slowly prepares and then undertakes the face-removal, and at each stage you expect the camera to cut away or the time to be condensed – but instead Franju lingers, almost fetishistically on the slow, methodical actions of the surgeon, in much the same way he lingered on the work of the abatoir workers in his 1948 documentary ‘Le Sang des bêtes‘. The end of the scene, when the face is finally removed, has been almost intolerably built towards, and it is easy to see why this is so well remembered. Pedro Almodóvar copied the imagery, including the mask, in his 2011 movie ‘The Skin I Live In’, but I found my first thought was of Ridley Scott’s movie ‘Hannibal’, specifically one scene in which the psychiatrist-turned-cannibal Hannibal Lecter conducts brain surgery. Scott has the same approach as Franju: unflinchingly generating tension and a refusal to divert the camera’s focus. ‘Eyes Without a Face’ is a chilly, clinical film, but with a few moments of transcendence that lift it.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s not as explicit as it sounds. There are a number of films, including Almodóvar’s ‘The Skin I Live In’, Pascal Laugier’s ‘Martyrs’ and Scott’s ‘Hannibal’, that I suspect are influenced by this, so I’d recommend any in a double bill. If this is too much for you, then Georges Franju went on to direct the less-explicit, but equally exciting ‘Judex’.