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EYES WITHOUT A FACE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Edith Scot, Francois Guerin, Juliette Mayniel
Director:  Georges Franju
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66”1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  90 Minutes
Release Date:  October 19, 2004

“Smile…not too much…”

Film ***

The most striking aspect of Eyes Without a Face is its grisly centerpiece…not that we haven’t seen the like in horror movies, but I can’t remember a 50s film ever offering so unapologetic a piece of gore.  When the film first premiered in France, it’s been said that people fainted in the theatre.  As the decade turned to the 60s, the influence of this movie helped usher in a new generation of horror films, where directors no longer felt constrained to leave acts of violence off screen or all to their viewers’ imaginations.

And yet the irony is that this isn’t really a blood and guts horror film, but a rather surreal, atmospheric one.  Director Georges Franju took a simple premise and crafted a deliberately paced and slowly unsettling look at character driven horror…and despite the fact that he shows what he shows, the most effective aspects of the movie are the ones that inspire the subconscious mind.

The opening is quite striking…after the credits play out over a tracking shot representing the point of view of a moving car, we are introduced to a woman driving in the night.  Her face glows in the light, but she seems ill at ease…the unnaturally loud sound of her engine accents this.  She adjusts her rear view mirror, and we see a cloaked figure in the back seat.  We are startled; she is not.  It is a body she is about to get rid of.

Her name is Louise (Valli), and she’s the assistant to a dour scientist Dr. Genessier (Brasseur), a man whom we first see lecturing on the possibilities of a “heterograft”…transplanting human skin from one body to another to heal disfigurements.  His interest is more than academic, we come to learn.

Blaming himself for an accident that disfigured his daughter Christiane (Scob) that left her literally without a face, he is determined to restore her to her state of beauty.  In a distant, giant, empty house, she strolls around with a strange, muted mask that only lets her eyes show.  Meanwhile, Genessier and Louise are preparing to find a new “volunteer” donor so that he can try the operation yet again.

The centerpiece, as I mentioned, is a look at the operation in progress, and it gets much more graphic than you might imagine.  One can easily see the seeds of John Woo’s Face-Off being planted, as the ugliness of trying to create beauty becomes manifest.

But possibly even more disturbing is the aftermath…Christiane is temporarily restored to loveliness, but the doctor knows something is wrong.  In a series of grim photos, we see how her condition deteriorates.  She no longer wishes to try, but her father is determined to make one more go of it.

There are investigative cops who aren’t much help, and a boyfriend whom we think will save the day, but seems unable to see beyond reason into the fantastic and figure out what is happening.  The climax is assured, but it may not come the way you’ve been conditioned to believe.

When the movie first played in America, the “face-lift” scene was itself lifted, but I’d wager that even without it, the film is still capable of delivering an unnerving and unsettling experience.  But I’m always in favor of seeing pictures presented the way the director intended.  Criterion has restored Eyes Without a Face to its full, gruesome running time, and has given modern fans a chance to revisit a controversial and striking classic in all it’s bloody, haunting glory.

Video ***

Criterion’s anamorphic black and white transfer is quite good.  The print is very clean; only a couple of darker images exhibit a bit of residue ‘flicker’, but big spots, scratches and scars are extremely minimal.  Images are crisp and clear and contrast levels are striking without being too grainy.

Audio ***

The mono soundtrack is better than most; largely because of how important sound is to the overall effect of the film.  From the menacing strains of car engines to the constant din of barking dogs to a striking music score, this audio offers good dynamic range while being presented with a clean transfer that keeps background noise minimal.

Features ***

The main extra is the inclusion of an infamous short documentary by Franju called Blood of the Beasts, a rather realistic and grisly look at a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Paris where horses, cattle and sheep are systematically killed, skinned and processed.  There is a vintage interview segment with Franju, as well as one with writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who not only penned the screenplay for this movie, but also were the men behind Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Clouzot’s Diabolique.

Rounding out are a stills gallery of rare photos and two trailers; the original French one, and the English language double-bill one where the film was retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.

Summary:

Eyes Without a Face marked a horror turning point and helped usher in a new era that gave us the Hammer classics, George Romero and more.  Kudos to Criterion for making this available to modern fans...I for one was very glad for the chance to experience it in its uncut gory glory.  Now if I can just get that damned Billy Idol song out of my head, all will be good...

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