In Georges Franju's horror classic Eyes Without a Face there is one key scene that will have you gasp with shock and horror, and when it happens you'll know exactly what scene I am speaking about. When this film opened in 1960 according to L' Express, "The spectators dropped like flies," and when premiering at the Edinburgh Film Festival it was said that seven people actually fainted. The film became so scandalised that the French establishment tried to deny that the film even existed; with one critic nearly losing her job after stating that she liked it. In England, Isabel Quigly a film critic for The Spectator, called the film "the sickest film since I started film criticism". Within the late 50's, horror films like Henri-Georges Clouzot's masterpiece Diabolique increased their shock value by adding in more gore and sexuality, trying to push the limits of the studios. Franju wanted to take the themes of the macabre to a whole new level with Eyes Without a Face; and he greatly succeeded. The film's main protagonist Christiane is a young woman who's face was destroyed in a car accident and now must conceal her face behind a mask. Her father Dr. Genessier who is quite obviously a sociopath, is obsessively attempting to construct a new face for her, sending his assistant out to abduct beautiful women and bringing them back to his estate to perform hetero-graft surgery, which involves removing their faces and grafting the skin onto his daughter. The character of Dr. Genessier and of his grisly experiments is a clear theme of the mad scientist character similar to others like Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau.
A woman named Louise is driving her vehicle to a riverbank just outside Paris in the middle of the night. She looks in her rear view mirror at a corpse in the back seat wearing a jacket and hat slumped over looking like a rag doll. When arriving to the riverbank she takes out the corpse and dumps it over into the river. After the body is recovered Doctor Genessier who is a very respected doctor and surgeon is attending a public scientific meeting and giving a speech to several colleagues. Dr. Genessier is later asked to come to the morgue and identify the remains of a body that might be those of his missing daughter Christiane whose face was horribly disfigured in an automobile accident that occurred before her disappearance.
At the police station officer Lherminier is and police inspector Detective Parot who is in charge of the Missing Person's Bureau are discussing the body found in the river. The drowning victim's description not only fits the description of Christiane but also of a young woman named Simone Tessot who recently disappeared; and her father was also called to the station. Detective Parot finds the body they found odd because the edges on the large open wound of the face is as smooth as if someone had taken a scalpel to them.
Doctor Genessier arrives to the station and the two officers take Genessier to the Identification Room in the morgue. Genessier confirms the body is his daughter Christiane and when the father of Simone Tessot arrives he is told that the body has already been identified. When Genessier leaves the station the father of Simone approaches him and asks Genessier if he is exactly sure the body was of his daughter. "Sadly sure, only too sure," Genessier says. Simone's father tells him that it's been 10 days since he last saw his daughter and he is so afraid. Genessier walks to his car and says to the grieving father, "How odd I should have to comfort you. You still have some hope, at least."
At Christiane's funeral it is explained that Louise is Genessier's assistant and a man named Jasques was Christiane's fiancée and also works as Genessier's medical protegé at the hospital. After Christiane's funeral many acquaintances of Genessier are worried about Genessier saying to one another how Genessier had lost his wife 4 years ago and now lost his only daughter saying, "Paris, fame, fortune...what's it all add up to?"
After the guests leave Genessier places flowers on his daughter's grave site and Louise tells Genessier that she cannot take more of any of this. Genessier takes her aside and slaps her ordering her to shut up and they both leave. The two of them drive far out into the country to Genessier's large villa which is adjacent to his clinic, with numerous caged German Shepherds and other large dogs.
Genessier walks inside his mansion and walks up the large staircase heading to a bedroom far down at the end of the hall. When entering the room he notices a birdcage and a young woman who is sleeping with her face down and not shown. Where did you find this? I don't like your snooping around," says Genessier as he sees the death certificate of Christiane on the table. The woman is revealed to be the real Christiane and her father tells her that he has no time to explain to her what exactly he is plotting with faking her death.
Christiane says to her father, "I see horrible things. I'm living them! What have you done now?" Genessier tells her that her death had to be done for her own good and that names were simply substituted. Genessier says, "Since that girl died after the operation, I took an additional risk. I made everyone believe it was you. Everyone thinks you're dead. They won't look any further."
Genessier is suddenly furious when he noticed his daughter isn't wearing her rubber face mask and orders her to always get in the habit of wearing it. He tries to comfort his daughter and promises her that he will eventually succeed in his experiment to fix her, but Christiane doubts him. "I know my abilities, don't I?" he says to her. "You'll have a real face. I promise you."
Her father leaves when Louise walks into the room to serve Christiane dinner. Christiane tells Louise that all the mirrors in the mansion have been removed but she can still see her reflection in the glass and with all the shiny objects in the house. Louise reassures Christiane that her follow will succeed because he did with her, even though Louise had a full face to work with. "Damaged, maybe, but not destroyed like mine," Christiane says. Christiane believes the cause of her destroyed face was her father's fault because he was the one that was behind the wheel when the two of them got into the automobile accident.
"The crash nearly killed me. Why did he try so hard to save me?" she asked. Louise places Christiane's rubber face mask back on Christiane and the camera finally shows Christiane from her the front as Louise combs her hair. After Louise leaves, in a haunting and beautiful shot it shows Christiane take a quite and gentle stroll throughout the mansion corridors and when entering her old bedroom she sees the phone and decides to pick it up and dial her fiancée Jasques; but quickly hangs up when he answers.
The next day Louise is in the city and approaches a young attractive girl named Edna Gruber waiting in line for a movie and days later the two meet again at a restaurant as Louise informs Edna of a job position they previously discussed at the last meeting. Louise lures Edna to Genessier's home for her to meet the employer of this position. "It seems very far," Edna says to Louise when realizing how far out from the city they are driving.
When arriving at the villa Edna is astonished on how large it is, hearing the sound of dogs in the back pen. When walking inside the estate Edna is introduced to Doctor Genessier. "I'll show you your room" Genessier says. "It outlooks the trees. I'm sure you'll like it." Edna still isn't sure about taking the position she was offered and says she will have to think it over. Edna takes a seat as Genessier walks to the liquor cabinet to pretend to get a drink but quickly grabs Edna and chloroforms her.
After Edna is out, Genessier and Louise carry Edna down to Genessier's secret laboratory while Christiane watches from afar. When placing Edna on the operating table Genessier says to Louise, "I'll start after dinner. This time I must try removing a larger section. In one piece. Not in sections." After Genessier and Louise leave the laboratory, Christiane walks in to look over Edna. She opens up the back room to reveal several caged German Shepherds and dogs and she tenderly pets several of them. When going back into the laboratory she takes off her rubber mask and steps in front of Edna and starts to feel Edna's face structure. Edna slowly starts to come out of her sleep as she can slowly make out the blur of a woman staring at her without a face and Edna screams and blacks out.
Genessier and his assistant Louise gets into their surgery gear and Genessier says to Louise, "Here we go..." as he starts to perform heterograft surgery on Edna. This disturbing surgery scene involves the doctor outlining Edna's face with a marker and making the bloody cut while Louise is securing the incisions with several clamps; which in the end Edna's face literally peels right off.
Days pass as animal catcher's arrive with new test dogs. Genessier asks Louise how his daughter is recovering and if she is eating. Louise tells him that she is doing very well saying, "She’s happy this time. She has faith. I showed her how nicely its healing. I changed the bandages. It looks fine. Much better than yesterday. I have faith this time too." Genessier says that if this groundbreaking surgery of grafting another person's skin to another face is successful, they could make a fortune.
"I've done so much wrong to perform this miracle. I've done you a lot of wrong, too," Genessier says to Louise. Louise understands and says that she will never forget what he did for her face showing him how there is hardly any trace now, lifting up her pearl choker to show the small scar under her neck. Louise asks what to do with Edna and Genessier tells her to feed her for now and he'll decide later.
That evening when Louise goes in to feed Edna she is surprisingly hit over the head by her and Edna makes a run to try to escape from the estate. Genessier arrives home and Louise informs him that Edna has escaped. Edna makes her way up the stairs and down the hallway eventually jumping from a second story window killing herself.
Genessier and Louise take Edna's body to the graveyard and bury her next to where Simone was buried. At the police station Edna's friend is filling out a missing persons report and tells Inspector Parot that Edna told her she met a woman who offered her a job and who always wore a thick pearl necklace. Inspector Parot shows the picture of Edna to officer Lherminier and they both notice that each missing girl is around the same age, have the same color eyes, and are all very beautiful. A woman named Paulette that officer Lherminier just arrested for shoplifting has the same characteristics as the missing girls and Parot orders Lherminier to let her go but not before getting down her address for when they might need her.
When Genessier, Louise and Christiane are all having dinner, Genessier is admiring his work on his daughter and is extremely proud of his success. The camera finally reveals Christiane's completely new face after being healed from the surgery. "You can start life all over again," Genessier says to his daughter.
Christiane agrees but realizes she now has to come back to life for everyone. Genessier says, "You can start by taking a trip, a long trip. I'll get you the papers. You can choose yourself a name. Won't that be fun? A new face...a new identity." Louise says Christiane looks beautiful and angelic but Christiane doesn't feel that way saying, "When I look in a mirror, I feel like I'm looking at someone who looks at me, but seems to come from the Beyond...from the Beyond."
Christiane asks her father about her fiancée Jacques and Genessier says that poses a problem, but he will try to figure it out knowing Jacques deeply loves Christiane. After dinner Genessier gets a call to see a patient at the hospital but before he leaves he takes a close look at Christiane's face. He asks if she is wearing any makeup and Christiane says no. She asks why he asked that, and he says, "No reason. You have rosy cheeks, that's all." When Genessier is outside alone with Louise, she notices by Genessier anxious expression that something is wrong. He bluntly tells Louise, "I've failed."
In a montage of still shots, Doctor Genessier narrates the slow tissue rejection and deterioration of Christiane's face new stating, "February 15. February 20. A week after healing, spots of pigmentation appear. Later, palpitation reveals small subcutaneous nodules. On Day 12, necrosis of the graft tissue is apparent. Day 20. The first ulcerations and sign of rejection of the graft tissue. The necrotic graft tissue must be removed." Eventually the new face completely dies and Christiane has to resort to wearing the rubber face mask again.
One day Christiane again makes a call to her fiancé Jacques and when he answers she actually says his name and when Louise sees this she quickly grabs the phone and hangs it up. "Do you realize how reckless you're being?" Louise says to Christiane. Christiane starts to cry as you see tears roll down her mask saying, "I know. The dead should keep quiet. Then let me be dead for good. I can't stand it anymore! I don't dare look at myself! I can't touch my face for fear of feeling the furrows and crevices in my skin. It feels like rubber."
Louise tries to comfort Christiane telling her to not give up because her father will succeed. Christiane says, "He never will. He'll keep experimenting on me like one of his dogs. A human guinea pig. What a godsend for him! I want to die...please!" Christiane asks Louise about the injections her father gives to the dogs and asks Louise to kill her as Christiane suddenly faints.
Jacques reports the mysterious phone call to inspector Parot explaining to him how he swears he heard Christiane's voice over the phone. Inspector Parot believes it was probably a practical joke and how his files are filled with testimonies and vague descriptions; naming one-off of a mysterious woman with a pearl choker. Jacques knows a woman who wears a pearl choker and tells Inspector Parot about Louise his bosses assistant. The girl named Paulette that officer Lherminier had in custody earlier the other day is than asked a favor by Inspector Parot which if done could have her avoid jail time from her earlier theft. Parot asks Paulette to bleach her hair more blonde and to be admitted to Doctor Genessier's clinic and he informs Jacques to keep a watch on Paulette.
Genessier meets Paulette as she is admitted to his hospital and Genessier asks his nurses to run some tests on her. In one of the most interesting scenes in the film Genessier comforts a sick boy and gives hopeful news to the mother that the boy will make it. After going through a series of medical tests Genessier decides to let Paulette go after the tests show she is healthy.
Inspector Parot's plan of using Paulette as a form of bait works as she is approached by Louise on the street right after she is released from the hospital as she is walking home. Jacques calls the Inspector to let him know of Paulette’s release and he and officer Lherminier quickly head to Genessier's hospital and has his intern call on Genessier.
Genessier is about to begin surgery on Paulette in his laboratory when Louise informs him that the police want to see him at the hospital. Genessier leaves his home and quickly heads to the hospital leaving Paulette alone with Christiane. When Genessier arrives to meet Inspector Parot he is questioned on his current patient Paulette Merodon who has checked out of his hospital earlier. Genessier tells the officers that once his patients leave his hospital they are no longer his responsibility.
When Genessier's intern tells the officers that she remembers Paulette calling her mother and informing her that she was taking the bus home the two officers believe everything is fine. Jasques walks the two officers outside to their car and apologizes for having wasted their time. "We're used to following up a bum lead," says Inspector Parot as the bumbling cops leave naively thinking nothing is wrong.
Back at the villa, Paulette wakes up during her surgery and starts to cry which greatly frightens Christiane. Already long being disenchanted with her father's experiments, Christiane decides to free Paulette by picking up the incision knife and cutting her free. When Louise confronts Christiane and tries to stop her, Christiane stabs her in the neck and kills her.
Christiane also decides to free all the dogs and doves that her father used for his horrific experiments. Genessier returns back to his lab, where the freed dogs violently attack him and brutally disfigure his face while Christiane walks into the woods outside her father's villa with one of the freed doves on her hand; and now is at peace.
Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face is for me the most chilling expression in cinema of our ancient preoccupation with the nature of identity. Its core motif is the mask, here an uncanny thing of smooth, hard plastic worn by a young woman to conceal a face destroyed in an auto accident. Her name is Christiane; her father, Dr. Génessier, an eminent Parisian surgeon, is obsessively engaged in an attempt to reconstruct that face. But his cosmetic project is a travesty of the impulse to heal, and Christiane, despite her disfigurement, remains in possession of what her father has lost, if he ever had it—a spiritual faculty, an idea of the good: a soul. Christiane will come to play moral antagonist to her monstrous father, a good woman pitted against an evil man.
What is remarkable about the film is not its thematic originality, for this is a familiar tale, but rather its imagery, its atmosphere, and the perfect rightness of the story’s narrative elements—the face and the mask, the graft and the wound, later on the dogs and the doves. In the first scene, we see a beautiful woman with a pale, waxy face driving a car through the darkest of nights. Night or dusk, deep shadow, roads wet with rain, these will be the features of this nightmare world, all implicitly negating what is clear, what is properly lit. There is almost no illumination but the sheen on the skin of the woman’s face.
She touches the rear-view mirror and we see that in the back of the car slumps a figure in a large overcoat, hat pulled low, limp and floppy as a rag doll. It is, of course, a corpse, which accounts for the waxy-faced woman’s anxiety as she drives through the night: she is engaged in a clandestine act of body disposal. When at last she stops the car and steps out, her coat gleams against the blackness of the night, for it is made of a hard, shiny, reflective material. It is this feeling of hardness, of impenetrability, of the unnatural and inorganic—the synthetic—that will characterize all that is associated with Dr. Génessier and his grisly project. The woman is his assistant, Louise, who represents his success: she has emerged intact from his surgery. But like Génessier, she has no soul. Her function is to lure young women to the clinic outside Paris where he performs his ghastly surgical experiments.
The imagery and language of the clinic is a staple of the mad-doctor story, and Franju milks it for all its inherently sinister potential. There are numerous examples of medical jargon masking extremely nasty realities—the “heterograft,” for example, which translates as the attaching onto the patient of another’s skin. Which spells death, of course. More horrifying by far, however, are the vivid instances when we see Génessier at work. Surgical clamps proliferate. In one gloriously horrible scene, the doctor first marks the outline of the face, makes his bloody cut, then secures the incision with a forest of clamps—at which point comes, literally, the facelift.
This is Franju’s heart of darkness. The film builds to this glimpse of monstrosity, this perversion of Western science—or perhaps the logical outcome of that science, a meddling in mysteries that ought to be the preserve of God alone. But having meddled, the scientist must be punished, and punished he will be.
It is a mark of Franju’s diabolically inspired storytelling that he should place a family at the center of the horror. There is a wonderful dinner-table scene, an exquisite instance of what might be called the “domestic perverse.” The doctor sits with two women, Louise—a kind of surrogate wife and mother—and Christiane, the three eating together as a family. All is harmony and love. But this must be one of the weirdest meals in the history of cinema, because each of the beautiful women has had her face dramatically altered by Génessier—in Christiane’s case, entirely replaced. A little later, outside the house and out of earshot of Christiane, things turn dark again as the doctor tells Louise that, appearances to the contrary, he has failed again.
Soon enough we have a lurid montage of decay, again glossed with medical terminology that can barely do justice to the images of organic disintegration of the girl’s lovely, if second-hand face. “Spots of pigmentation,” then “small subcutaneous nodules.” A few days later, “necrosis of the graft tissue”—then “ulceration”—and finally, removal of the dead graft tissue and resumption of the hated mask. It is a setback that Christiane cannot endure, this corruption of her new face, and so the endgame is set in motion, the final struggle of the good daughter and her evil father.
Franju is consistently skeptical toward those—and not just the scientist—who put their faith in reason alone. The detectives trying to crack the case of the missing girls victimized by the doctor will completely misread the evidence in front of them, as will Jacques, the fiancé of Christiane, a young doctor who works in Génessier’s clinic. A more conventional horror film might have allowed these men to destroy the monster and rescue the girl. Not this one.
A large part of the charm of the movie is the control of tone throughout. Its darkness, both literal and moral, never lets up. But there is also the most subtle flavoring of black humor, which lends a certain curious lightness of touch to the unrelenting negativity of the vision. It is there in the almost parodic use of medical terminology, in the hideousness of the surgical instruments, and even, in places, in the sly resonance of the imagery. A young woman is sent to the clinic as a kind of prey to trap the doctor, and while in bandages and surgical clamps awaiting her “facelift” she resembles nothing so much as an oddly distressed nun. She is, of course, one of the innocents and will escape the doctor, no thanks to the bumbling policemen. But the image of the nun anesthetized, festooned with clamps, feels mischievous even as it plays into the religious symbolism of the film, and a small wicked chuckle can be heard within the swelling cacophony of its macabre denouement.
This is a story about the potential for evil of science in general and of medicine in particular, and not coincidentally it is also about patriarchy. It is about the father’s tyranny over his women. And it is hard not to speculate that Génessier’s increasingly frantic attempts to restore his daughter’s face might be read as the response of the abusive parent to his corrupted child. For the doctor was responsible—he was driving the car when the accident that disfigured Christiane occurred, and he always drove, she says, “like a lunatic.” So what we have is a lunatic father impelled to perform ever more desperate acts of violence to make his child good once more. The real horror in Eyes Without a Face is that Génessier is not motivated by love at all but by his intolerable guilt at having ruined her.
During Eyes Without a Face's film production, consideration was given to the standards of European censors by setting the right tone, minimizing gore and eliminating the mad-scientist character in the story. Although the film passed through the European censors, the film's release in Europe caused controversy nevertheless with critical reaction ranging from praise to disgust. In the late 1950s, British horror films such as The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula were popular with French filmgoers and at the time, similar modern horror films had not been attempted by French film makers until producer Jules Borkon decided to tap into the horror market. Borkon bought the rights to the Jean Redon's novel which served as the basis for Eyes Without a Face. He then offered the directorial role to one of the founders of Cinémathèque Française, French director Georges Franju.
Franju was already famous for his disturbing but eye-opening documentary short Blood of the Beasts which showed a collage of grewsome images of animal slaughterhouses with a contrast of shots of children playing. Franju had grown up during the French silent-film era when filmmakers such as Georges Méliès and Louis Feuillade were making fantastique-themed films, and he relished the opportunity to contribute to the genre. Franju felt the story was not a horror film; rather, he described his vision of the film as one of "anguish... it's a quieter mood than horror... more internal, more penetrating. It's horror in homeopathic doses." To avoid problems with European censors, Borkon cautioned Franju not to include too much blood (which would upset French censors) refrain from showing animals getting tortured (which would upset English censors) and leave out mad-scientist characters (which would upset German censors)! Ironically all three of these were part of the film, presenting a challenge to find the right tone for presenting these story elements in the film.
First, working with Claude Sautet who was also serving as first assistant director and who laid out the preliminary screenplay, Franju hired the writing team of Boileau-Narcejac (Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) who had adapted the written novels of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The writers shifted the novel's focus from Doctor Genessier's character to that of his daughter, Christiane; this shift revealed the doctor's character in a more positive and understandable light and helped to avoid the censorship restrictions. French composer Maurice Jarre created the haunting score for the film. Modern critics note the film's two imposing musical themes, a jaunty carnival-esque waltz (featured while Louise picks up young women for Doctor Génessier) and a lighter, sadder piece for Christiane which creates a haunting contrast with one another. Jarre subsequently wrote the music score for David Lean's two historical epics Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago as well.
Eyes without a Face completed filming in 1959, and had its début in Paris on March 2, 1960. Although it passed through the European censors, the film caused controversy on its release in Europe and during the film's showing at the 1960 Edinburgh Film Festival, seven audience members fainted, to which director Franju responded, "Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts." For the American release in 1962, the film was cut. It was given an English-language dub, and re-titled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus being wound up on a double bill with The Master; a more typically exploitive monster movie. Eventually the distributors recognized the artistic merit of the film and played up that element in promotion with an advertisement quoting the London Observer's positive statements about the film and noting its showing at the Edinburgh Film Festival.
Eyes Without a Face had a very limited initial run and there was little reception from the American mainstream press, but eventually received its second large theatrical release in a September 1986 re-release of the film; (in conjunction with retrospectives at the National Film Theatre in London and at film archive Cinémathèque Française for its 50th anniversary in France.) As a founder of Cinémathèque Française, the archive celebrated Franju by presenting the director's back catalogue and the film was re-released in its original form to American theatres on October 31, 2003 under its original running time and title.
Eyes Without a Face is such a timeless and enchanting horror film and in many ways goes beyond the simple genre of horror because of its beautifully shot scenes that give off an almost fairytale like resemblance to the poetic works of Jean Cocteau. The Encyclopedia of Horror Films noted the Cocteau influence, stating that "Franju invests the film with a weird poetry in which the influence of Cocteau is unmistakable". David Edelstein of Slate also compared the film to Cocteau's work, commenting that "the storyline is your standard obsessed-mad-doctor saga, one step above a Poverty Row Bela Lugosi feature." Eyes Without a Face is also a very effective film emotionally because of the main character Christiane. Her face is concealed throughout the film and yet her eyes within the cut out eye holes and her physical angelic like movements around the house create this fragile and tragic character. She has this beautiful intensity when on the screen, living through this horrific nightmare that is completely out of her control; with Franju once describing her saying, "She is a magic person. She gives the unreal reality." This film is a frightening story on identity and obsession; which isn't surprising that the writing team of Boileau-Narcejac who both wrote for Alfred Hitchcock's haunting Vertigo also wrote the screenplay for this film as well. The classic dinner scene in the film with the three of the main character's eating together gives off a creepy domestic vibe that feels very perverse. Genessier is sitting next to his lover and daughter, who are in many ways his guinea pigs that he uses to carry out his scientific obsessions. In a more conventional story the sub-plot of the bumbling police officers and their plan of using a female as bait to catch the bad guy doesn't actually work out in the end, with the officers and Jasques completely not seeing the evidence that's right in front of their faces. In the end the police officers are not the heroic saviors we would have expected them to be, and instead it is Christiane who finally stands up to her sadistic father. Unlike several exploitation horror films of the late 50's, Franju knew that he didn't need blood or shock value in Eyes Without a Face to create an emotional reaction with the audience; but a dramatic story with character's who you can at least care about, if not understand. Every character has a reason for doing what their doing, as delusional or immoral as the reasons seem to be. Louise is attributing to these horrific acts because of her deep love and affection for the man who made her beautiful once again, and Genessier is doing it for the love and affection of his daughter who he wants to see beautiful once again. Yes, Genessier is a monster and the films themes revolve around the potential evils of western science, but what makes the film much deeper and profound than most movies labeled under the 'horror genre' is the one scene that the American distributors decided to cut out for its American premiere in 1962. This deleted scene gave Genessier a much more rich, complex and deeper character study which frightened the studios because god knows every villain presented in a horror film must be looked upon simply as evil incarnate with no human qualities. This brief deleted scene (fortunately included in the Criterion Collection DVD) shows Doctor Genessier working in the hospital and tenderly expressing loving care and affection for a small sick child and his mother. You can have violence, blood, and death in a film but giving the villain a sympathetic human side that explores his humanity; that of course is out of the question.