Øjne uden ansigt
When it comes to horror I am pretty easy. You do not need to roll out the big guns of ghosts and zombies and chainsaws. Show me a medical procedure and I am pretty much done for. Yeah, I am rather squeamish when it comes to that. In my childhood I got so nauseous from reading a medical lexicon that I fainted and broke my nose. Try imagine what an explicit presentation of a face transplantation from one living human being to another would do to me.
This is exactly what “Les yeux sans visage” or “Eyes Without a Face” offer. If there was nothing else to the movie it would be enough for it to qualify as horror in my book. Yes, I did have to look away, it was just too awful.
But “Les yeux sans visage” is a lot more than that. It is a chilling story about a doctor (Pierre Brasseur as Doctor Génessier) who caused his daughter’s (Edith Scob) ruined face in a car accident and now tries to undo the damage by transferring the skin of another woman to his daughters face. It is not so easy though. Doctor Génessier needs a lot of attempts to get it right and the donors are ordinary living women who would sadly miss their face when they wake up. That little detail is handled by killing them off as they move along. So in the process of absolving his crime to his daughter doctor Génessier becomes a mass murderer of a monster.
Doctor Génessier is assisted by Louise (Alida Valli) whose job it is to find the girls and lure them out to the doctor’s mansion. She seems to accept the procedure, but Christiane, the daughter, is increasingly having misgivings, partly because of the destruction of the donors and partly because the transplantations only lasts a few days.
As a synopsis this is bad (as in “scary”) enough with a Dr. Death on the prowl, but the execution has a dreamlike quality that makes the story unfold as a nightmare. The photography is the big hero here. It is artistic and ethereal in a way that reminded me of Jean Cocteau. It is difficult to describe, but is like the antithesis of the ultra-realism of Goddard in the “Les Quatre Cent Coups”. There are no raving lunatics or sudden outbursts here. If anything there is a great sadness as if we almost understand the obsession of the doctor.
Christiane has to wear a mask to protect her face and that works very well to promote the ethereal feel of the movie. It is absolutely crazy what a mask does to a human being. Something very humane is taken away and yet this creature is enormously fragile. And behind the mask lurks the monster…
In the periphery of the story is a police investigation of the missing women. The detectives may have gotten a potential breakthrough when suspicion falls on Doctor Génessier and they send in a girl as bait. The conclusion of the police however is that Doctor Génessier is innocent and the girl would have died if the story had not taken a dramatic turn. I think that is interesting. Normally in this sort of movie the cavalry will come charging in at the end to save the day, but here the cavalry is impotent, almost irrelevant. Instead this is all about father and daughter. I have this feeling that there are references here that I am not even aware of.
I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would. It is an effective horror movie, but it is a lot more than that and filmed in a poetic fashion atypical of horror. Georges Franju, the director, made a very unique movie, one that absolutely deserves a watch.
Also there is a warning about keeping dogs. Terrifying animals.