Eyes Without a Face was released in 1960 and directed by Georges Franju. It was released by Criterion on DVD on October 19, 2004 and on Blu-Ray on October 15, 2013, as spine #260. Franju also directed spine #710, Judex.
A genius surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) takes drastic measures to mend his daughter’s (Edith Scob) horrible facial disfigurements.
For a film made in the 1960s — and a cheaply-made film at that — Eyes Without a Face’s grotesque surgery scenes are surprisingly hard to watch. That’s not to say that all older films are inherently less affecting than contemporary ones, but it’s not unfair to assume that less “realistic” gore effects would be less scary. It’s a testament to director Georges Franju’s direction of the rest of the film that the surgery is so effectively horrifying. He gives the film an atmosphere of calm tension. Every scene is so rhythmically steady in its shots and edits, it’s as though the film is holding its breath for the length of each one. The escalating-heartbeat rhythm of most horror movies runs the risk of becoming less effective each time it’s used. Franju is so precise and exacting in his filmmaking that by the time the surgery scene comes around, it’s less a shocking twist than a chilling inevitability. The real horror isn’t that you’re watching a doctor cut off someone’s face, it’s that you feel relieved that something finally happened.
What makes Eyes Without a Face truly transcendent is that it uses its horror to drive at a thematic point, rather than layering a loose idea on top of a collection of scary moments. At heart, this is a film about parents trying to force certain identities on their children, rather than helping those children come to terms with the identities they already have. Get it? The crazy doctor’s way of helping his daughter cope with her facial injuries is to literally steal a new face for her. As we learn more about the daughter, including suggestions that she may not be on board with her father’s plans, this idea starts to come into focus. Any horror film as well-made as this one would be laudable, but its commitment to being about something makes Eyes Without a Face truly special.
There’s such an odd collection of supplements on this disc. First and foremost, there’s a 20-minute documentary by Franju about slaughterhouses called Blood of the Beasts, made over a decade before Eyes Without a Face. Besides sharing that film’s dreamy sense of horror, I’m not sure what the short’s relevance to it is. It’s not a bad thing to include, but I’m still puzzled by it. There are also some interesting interviews with Franju about Blood of the Beasts and horror in general, plus a recent interview with Edith Scob. There are also clips from a documentary called Les grand-péres du crime, which is about Eyes’ writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Presumably, the included excerpts are the only parts of the doc that are about Eyes. The booklet is one of my favorite Criterion booklets, featuring a great essay about the film from novelist Patrick McGrath wherein he discusses its imagery, and a very enlightening essay by film historian David Kalat about Franju’s about the film’s inception and its place in French cinema at the time.
Eyes Without a Face didn’t initially work for me, but upon a rewatch it really clicked. It’s a truly frightening film that’s got something to say, and Franju’s expert craftsmanship enhances both the horror and the ideas in equal measure. Though the Criterion release’s special features aren’t major selling points, the film itself is a real gem.
Criterion Grade: B-
Film Grade: A-