Friday 28 October 2016

Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage) (1959)

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.  


  1. There's a great deal to love in this movie. It really feels like something that wants to be a B-movie but has a little bit too much class to be there. The surgery scene is something I found really upsetting, and normally, that's not the kind of thing that bothers me a lot. But goes on so long and the camera just sits there.

    For me, the biggest visual wow of the film is that mask. It's just so far into the uncanny valley, and it works perfectly because of it.

    1. to me it felt like a B movie made as an arthouse movie. Arthouse can go anywhere and apparently also into horror.
      That mast is so unsettling and combined with the revulsion of the surgery it is truly horrific.

  2. This is a great film. If I had known horror could be this quiet and horrifying, I would have explored it more as a teenager. The sadness, as you say, doesn't make this a goody-bady story, but you can understand the Professor's motivations, even if his actions are truly awful.

    And that mask; that is the stuff of nightmares for me! I found the surgery grimly fascinating; years of watching medical documentaries has inured me to them.

    1. Are you a doctor, Julia? I cannot image anybody but doctors being able to watch the surgery scenes without revulsion.
      Of course they are "bad people" because there is no doubt what they are doing is wrong, but as it happens in a world offset by reality it makes almost sense.
      I agree this is a great film.

  3. Yeah, real life (and for me specifically needles) are more uncomfortable than monsters and zombies. I remember thinking Eyes Without a Face is quite similar visually to Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In (2011). Not sure which film I prefer.

    1. I think I missed that Aldomodovar movie, but I could imagine him doing something like this. I could never watch a real surgery.

  4. I saw this long ago and all I really remember is the dogs. Your review makes me look forward to giving it another go. I worked in an emergency room when I was in college and strangely enough blood doesn't bother me so much as needles do. I thought I would pass out when I saw a baby being given a spinal tap!

  5. Oh, medical procedures are true horror for me! Funny enough needles do not bother me much. I guess I have too many blood samples taken (I have a kidney condition), but open up the body and I get sick to my stomach.
    I think you will enjoy revisiting this one though. It has a lot to offer.