Eyes Without A Face is a very engaging, but bleak horror film. Not bleak in the sense of the horror exploitation films of the 1970s, where the endings erred on the side of “Nobody survived and this is going to happen again” or even just “None of our protagonists survived” as was the case of Night of The Living Dead. The film’s ending does have a true sense of catharsis, and if it was narratively framed differently, it would end on a much more upbeat note.
To get into this, I’m going to have to get into spoilers for a film from 1960. If you want to come in cold, consider this your warning.
The film fits into the same sort of narrative concept as movies like “The Brain That Would Not Die” and “Donovan’s Brain”, but with a far less dramatic injury spurring the plot. Christiane Génessier, the daughter of a famous plastic surgeon, has her face maimed horrifically in a car accident while her father was driving. In an attempt to make it right, Doctor Gènessier seeks to get her a new face by finding beautiful women, killing them as part of the process of taking off their face, and then grafting the face onto his daughter’s head.
However, as he runs into repeated failures, he ends up having to kill again and again as he tries to refine the procedure. Meanwhile, his daughter is cooped up and isolated from the rest of society, and is becoming more and more distraught at the fact that her father has, among other things, faked her death to cover up his murders, and in the process isolated her from society and in particular her fiance.
Where the film gets bleak is through the absence of the kind of investigative force that comes up in these stories, whether it’s through the loved ones of one of the victims trying to investigate the deaths, or the police trying to track down the cause of these murders, there’s some narrative driving force in the plot that the audience follows, while the villains do their work. When the film ends and the villain is thwarted, it through the actions of these characters, whether through the implication that the law, or your friends, or society will help you when things go bad.
By comparison, in Eyes Without A Face, these forces exist, and are utterly ineffective and have only a slight, unintentional influence on the plot. The police are frequently snowed by the doctor, and the fiance is unable to act without the assistance of the law. Ultimately, the doctor is stopped by his daughter, who kills his nurse with a scalpel, and then releases his dogs (who he’d also been experimenting on) on him, who in turn kill him.
The film then ends with Christiane walking out in the night, with one of the caged birds from the house on her arm, somewhat numbly, with it being just as likely that she’d walk off of a bridge into the Seine to take her life (as with how her death is faked earlier in the film) as it is for her to find her fiance and start anew.
Aside from the story and performances, the film is very well shot. The score, by Maurice Jarre (father of synth composer Jean-Michel Jarre), is very jaunty, but in a way that comes across as more sinister than anything else. The performances are generally great, with Pierre Brasseur doing a good job as the Doctor, who is as much split between wanting to help the daughter who he has harmed and seeking to further his science. However, of particular note is Edith Scob as Christianne. She has to go through the whole film with no real ability to act facially, so her body language and voice has to carry the role, and she does a tremendous job. I like to think that her work here lays the groundwork for the performances we get from Liam Neeson and Arnold Vosloo in the Darkman films.
I think fans of horror films should definitely give this movie a try – don’t let the fact that this is a French film from the ’60s put you off.
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