Georges Franju has a thing for masks. Both figurative ones and literal ones are dotted throughout his work, most notably in Thérèse Desqueroux (1962), Judex (1963) and Nuits rouges (1974). However, it is in his 1960 work Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage) that the literal mask plays a more prevalent role.
The BFI has lovingly restored the film and crafted a plethora of extras to release it on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK and it doesn’t disappoint. Picture quality is outstanding and the sound perfect. The film opens with Maurice Jarre’s carnivalesque, jaunty yet haunting score as a female (The Third Man’s Alida Valli) manoeuvres her car down dark winding country roads at night; the tension building as a person in a mackintosh and hat sits in the backseat. Something is not quite right and all unease is confirmed when the driver hoists the body from the backseat and dumps it into the local river. Louise works for Docteur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) a prominent scientist and researcher in facial reconstruction, the viability of living tissue grafts and necrosis – the operation scenes of which are horrific thanks to Georges Klein’s make-up and Charles-Henri Assola’s special effects. The police have their suspicions about the good doctor but fail to act before the film’s climatic denouement.
Inside the Doctor’s home, silence is juxtaposed with the tweeting of birds and barking of dogs. It is eerie and foreboding, shot with low camera angles and a static camera is interspersed with the odd tracking shot. The use of chiaroscuro is stunning and shadows add to the atmosphere of the allegorical fairy tale. Darkness gives way to light the higher the stairs climbed until the bedroom of Christiane (Edith Scob) is reached. The camera work and lighting design is a real testament to Eugen Schüfftan’s cinematography. Director of Photography Schüfftan had previously worked with Lang, Siodmak, Ophüls and Pabst and had a three dimensional way of lighting a scene, alternating each first and third shot which is great for adding atmosphere, angst and anticipation.
Christiane appears to be a young girl in her white room but the deep velvety tones of a woman amid the caged doves cooing is a real surprise; an adult prisoner being harder to subdue. Two mandolins hang above her bed arranged like a butterfly; she is in a chrysalis awaiting transformation after a car accident causes facial disfigurement. Forever incarcerated in the old dark house of creaking doors and balustrades of the staircase casting bar-like shadows on the wall, all mirrors are covered and Christiane is forced to wear a mask. A mask of brilliant white frozen beauty that only allows the eyes to be visible and they are the windows to a tortured lonely soul. After a while we forget it’s a mask, it’s gentle and soothing, the fact that Scob glides within each scene makes her appear as if an apparition or marionette doll. She is the caged dove, the constant reminder of her father’s guilt and the feeder of his hubris.
Eyes Without a Face is Franju’s masterpiece, an austere and elegant horror-based fairy tale. It deals with scientific ethics, solitude and loneliness; never has human torture been so romanticised, so cruel, tender and lyrical. Edith Scob, perhaps it is fair to say one-time muse of director Franju having worked with him on five pictures, is the star. She provides such a nuanced almost delicate (yet powerful) performance, her Christiane is as beautiful as she is strange, objectified beyond expression. Well, almost…
Notoriously incongruous, Franju is quoted as saying he subscribed to images and “my images are my fleurs maladives [evil flowers]”. Eyes Without a Face is one evil flower that all must see, at least once in their lifetime.