If Jean Cocteau were ever asked to make a Frankenstein movie, the result might have looked like Georges Franju’s lyrical 1960 horror film Eyes Without A Face, but even that description doesn’t do justice to its singularity. A scandal at home and mishandled abroad, the film dropped into a no-man’s land between a haunting, delicate, poetic vision of love and madness, and a genre shocker of the first order. It’s since been rediscovered and celebrated, but such are the perils of originality: Films that aren’t easily defined for one type of audience or another are often orphaned, and Eyes Without A Face is a classic anomaly, out of step with its time (and any other), with mysteries that lingered long enough for critics finally to be intoxicated by them.
Maurice Jarre’s score sounds like a deranged carnival version of the zither from The Third Man, and it immediately sets the tone for a film that spirals into obsession and psychic miasma. Alida Valli, who also co-starred in The Third Man, is shown barreling down a fog-swamped road at night, which creates a mood thick with tension and danger even before we learn she’s hiding a corpse in the back seat. The body is later identified by her boss, the esteemed Dr. Génessier, as his missing daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), but the truth is far more disturbing. Christiane is still alive, but her face was so severely mangled in a car accident that she’s consigned to wearing a mask and wandering the halls of cavernous Génessier manse. The body is all that remains of a failed facial transplant, a guinea pig in Génessier’s experimental “heterograph” procedure, which he hopes will restore his daughter’s life at the modest expense of someone else’s life.
By description, Eyes Without A Face is a mad-doctor movie updated for the latest medical advancements, but Génessier’s madness isn’t easily reduced, and the film has the sensation of a dream that’s occasionally dissipated by startling violence and horror. Génessier is willing to murder as many young women as he feels necessary to restore his daughter’s appearance, and that makes him the heavy, not to mention an avatar of science at its most arrogant. (The film has implications of Nazi experimentation.) Yet other, more human feelings, like love and guilt, drive him to action, and make him a different kind of monster. And some of that tenderness explains why his assistant Louise (Valli), the beneficiary of a life-saving skin graft, stays loyal when the bodies accumulate. There’s evil present, but Franju doesn’t treat it emphatically.
Yet the real poetry of Eyes Without A Face comes from Scob’s Christiane, and that eerie mask, which makes her look like a ghost or porcelain doll, cursed to explore the inside of her father’s gilded cage. When she looks upon one of her father’s abductees, her eyes aren’t covetous, but full of pity for the victim and herself, both trapped by her father’s maniacal vanity. Christiane eventually takes action, but between the mask and the casting of the delicate, wraith-like Scob, she drifts through the film in half-corporeal form, simultaneously as terrifying as a ghost and as fragile as a child.
And therein lies the allure of Eyes Without A Face, which occupies the space between genre worlds just as Christiane hovers in a kind of limbo between life and death. It was funneled into the early-1960s American horror pipeline under the ridiculous title The Horror Chamber Of Dr. Faustus, and nothing in its pulpy premise would made it inappropriate as half a B-movie double-bill. But Franju’s Cocteau influence nearly takes it out of the horror realm altogether, and into a sad, beautiful, heightened reality of his own creation. There’s no other movie quite like it.
Most of the features are ported over from a previous Criterion DVD edition, including Franju’s remarkable 1949 documentary short “Blood Of The Beasts,” which visits a horse and cow abattoir on the fringes of Paris. Not for the faint of heart, the documentary gets into the tools of the trade and shows how the animals are killed and processed in explicit detail. Yet it isn’t an industrial film, either, because of Franju’s eye for beauty and his interest in the men who do the work and the barren environment around the slaughterhouses. There are also a couple of brief archival interviews with Franju and a process-oriented 1985 documentary about two of the writers, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. New to the Blu-ray is an interview with Scob, who remembers the film (and Franju) fondly.