The best kind of horror isn't about jump scares, axe-wielding maniacs, or malevolent demons terrorizing families with a penchant for conveniently placing camcorders around their house; it's about generating a pervasive sense of unease and dread, and the key is not only to make it something disturbing and unsettling, but also for the film to do so without outright announcing itself as horror.
In that regard, Georges Franju's eerie 1960 film 'Eyes Without a Face' hits all of the above mentioned marks. Adapted from Jean Redon's novel of the same name, by the novel/screenwriting duo of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the troubling and affecting black and white piece is an exercise in creating discomfort and apprehension through long, quiet moments of unnerving mundanity. And then, just as the picture seems to settle into a quietly removed pace, it erupts into one excruciatingly clinical and horrific moment of gruesomeness that actually caused seven people to faint when the film screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival the year of its release.
Of course, as a director, Franju was no stranger to putting his viewers in an uncomfortable position. Earlier in his career, he made waves by presenting 'Blood of the Beasts'; a short documentary about an abattoir in which the slaughtering and butchering of animals was juxtaposed with beautiful scenery and shots of everyday life in Paris. Inside the slaughterhouse, all the blood and viscera modern audiences would prefer not to think about when buying a steak from the grocery store, or grabbing a burger from a fast food window, is regarded without sentiment and delivered through the prism of Franju's unemotional, unobstructed, and yet somehow still affecting eye. (If this has you intrigued, don't worry; 'Blood of the Beasts' is included in the special features of this Blu-ray edition of the film – it was also a supplement on Criterion's earlier DVD release. But its inclusion is not merely to afford the viewer something gruesome to watch, or to act as a highlight reel to the director's earlier work; it is because 'Blood of the Beasts' and 'Eyes Without a Face' not only share a director, they share a similarly stark and deliberately detached style of filmmaking that is somehow more disturbing and powerful than if it had been made in a deliberately emotional way.)
Here, Franju tells the story of Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a gifted, but cold Paris surgeon who has been removing the faces of young women and grafting them on his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), in an effort to correct the injuries she sustained in an accident he caused that left the young woman horribly disfigured. Christiane is at once the impetus for her father's continued wrong doing, and the film's protagonist – though it takes plenty of time before Franju lets his audience in on that fact. It is an element that is consciously and calculatingly obscured, in a film that consciously and calculatingly obscures many things. Even the score by Maurice Jarre carries with it a slightly demented, upbeat manner that initially obscures the tone of the film, and continues to belie the circumstances of the story, even as it is gradually revealed to the audience.
The film begins with a shot of Dr. Génessier's assistant Louise (Alida Valli), as she whisks a corpse down a dark road, constantly checking her rearview, as if expecting the dead body (and unwilling donor to another of Chrstiane's failed skin grafts) will somehow reveal something unexpected or prove to be very much alive. Louise's unspoken expectations are made all the more clear once we are introduced to Christiane, a formerly lovely young woman reduced to being a prisoner twice over: once behind the plastic mask that obscures her scarred visage, and again sentenced to roam the halls and mirrorless rooms of her father's great, expansive mansion. Christiane is a living dead girl; a ghost haunting her own home, irrevocably removed from her life and yet doomed to continue living it.
Franju pivots his film in several different directions, ardently refusing to categorize it or his characters as being wholly one thing or another. Louise is undoubtedly painted as a villain, but because she comes to her actions from a place of love and admiration, as a successful recipient of Dr. Génessier's reconstructive experiments, that complicates her complicity to some degree, as it comes from a sincere place of understanding. And although Génessier's convictions, personality and questionable relationship with his daughter complicate him as a character, he comes to his vile actions from not only a place of love, but also one of guilt. While, Franju could have gotten away with surface-level presentations of the aforementioned pair (but thankfully didn't), his film hinges on the characterization of Christiane, and here she is offered not as someone covetous of the beauty and physical completeness of her father's victims, but rather of something else they have that is not only far less tangible, but also even less certain in its permanence than the unwillingly donated skin required to make her whole.
In that regard 'Eyes Without a Face' turns the eerily perfect mask into a symbol for Christiane's search for identity – one that is cleverly mirrored by the unclassifiable nature of the film itself. Is it a horror film about a mad doctor, a treatise on the perils of scientific exploration and unfettered experimentations, or an artful examination of the masks we all hide behind while spending our time hopelessly trapped between the corporeal world we live in and the far more fantastical expanses of our inner selves?
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Eyes Without a Face' comes as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc in the standard Criterion keepcase. The spine is numbered 260, while two fantastic essays on the film by Patrick McGrath and David Kalat are included in the accompanying booklet.
The terrific looking 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer gives 'Eyes Without a Face' a chance to be appreciated by a whole new audience, looking to appreciate it for its terrific cinematography and incredible attention to detail. The film was given an HD transfer via a Spirit HD film scanner from the original 35 mm camera negative, ensuring an incredible viewing experience that truly delivers.
Although there are some visual artifacts floating around the screen, none of them actually mar the image in any way; they simply allow the viewer a better sense of when the film was made. At 53 years of age, 'Eyes Without a Face' is likely looking far better now than anyone could have possibly imagined. Additionally, the new HD image works wonders on the sumptuous and detailed black and white cinematography that makes the film more hauntingly beautiful and quietly reserved than almost any other film in memory. Contrast levels are superb, as blacks maintain a constant, solid, inky presence that generates a tremendous amount of depth.
Fine detail is present nearly everywhere, but it is tremendous in close-ups of the characters' faces (Pierre Brasseur's emotive brow is a particular highlight). But there are also other elements at play, like the fine texture of facial hair, and clothing, and the wonderfully detailed woods surrounding the Génessier family estate.
While there are some moments where the image is a tad hazy, or unrefined, they are few and far between. Overall, this is a tremendous looking image that presents the film in the best possible light.
The LPCM Mono soundtrack has also been remastered from the 35 mm negative, which has successfully removed almost all traces of crackles or hisses that would normally be present on audio this old. The remastering and removal of any noise or distracting elements allows the viewer to focus completely on the terrific score by Maurice Jarre, and the clarity with which the actor's voices are presented.
As it is a monaural track, there is not an incredible dynamic range present, but that doesn't mean 'Eyes Without a Face' is absent a strong audio element. As mentioned above, the actor's dialogue comes through in a crisp, precise manner that undoubtedly elevates the film's presentation, but there is also a nice balance between the talky elements of the movie and its other aural components like sound effects and score. There is an omnipresent and discomforting sound of dogs howling, whining and barking somewhere in the background of several scenes that adds another eerie dimension to the mix and generates a real sense of place and depth that engrosses the viewer.
Ultimately, this is rich and pristine track for a film that relies on sound as much as visual imagery to tell its story.
Though it will likely be looked at as tame by most of today's horror standards, 'Eyes Without a Face' still maintains one scene that will leave an indelible mark on anyone watching it. In that sense, the film again eludes specific classification, as its premise places it closer to the realm of the body horror subgenre, rather than straight-up horror, or some mad-doctor variation therein. More importantly, however, this is a film that was received poorly upon its initial release and only found the recognition it deserved years later, picking up new fans with each subsequent re-release on home video. Now on Blu-ray and looking better than ever, this classic, haunting, genre-busting work is a must see for classic film enthusiasts everywhere. Highly recommended.