Movie Review: Eyes Without a Face

Eyes Without a Face1959. Starring Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli. Directed by Georges Franju.

This Criterion Collection release includes among its features a mixed trailer of this film (albeit an English-dubbed version) and a two-headed-man low-budget horror film called The Manster. I guess they are kinda thematically related. . .but it must have been a surprise to drive-in horror fans who stayed awake for both movies. Les Yeux Sans Visage, as the French prefer, is a haunting and sad examination of medicine’s inability to repair the past. The Manster, in comparison, looks like a hoot.

Pierre Brasseur plays Dr. GĂ©nessier, a surgeon whose daughter has been reported missing after an accident. In reality, he is responsible for the accident and her disfigurement, and has hidden her away. He has the assistance of a devoted former patient (Alida Valli) in kidnapping other young women, whose faces he will attempt to transplant to his daughter. He practices on stray dogs that he keeps penned up in the garage.

The daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), is a sympathetic character, but is revealed slowly to maximize the horror. Scob is an interesting-looking actress, with a long neck and an odd floating-arm manner of walking, accentuated by the expressionless mask her character wears. She is promised the chance to “live again,” through the face transplants of her father’s victims, but it also means that her current life has ended, including the love of her former fiancĂ©. She wants to live less than her father wants to succeed in his transformative surgery.

The police investigating the disappearance of several young women eventually connect the dots, and involve an unsuspecting young shoplifter in one of the most irresponsible undercover operations that cinema has ever conceived.

Eyes Without a Face is a quiet, creepy horror film, with a twist ahead of its time: I couldn’t help thinking of that French woman who underwent the successful face transplant a few years ago. The idea of physical identity is touched on here, as is the perversion of medical technology, but it takes a backseat to the horror aspect. While the film’s gore has been surpassed long ago, it’s still unnerving — although it’s almost humorous to watch a surgery to remove a face that takes less time than it takes me to make a sandwich.

Speaking of horror, the Criterion DVD includes director Franju’s short film Blood of the Beasts, a stark-but-poetic film about French abattoirs — not recommended for dinnertime viewing. The director explains that, as a realist, he believes that all truth is beauty, but concedes that if it had been filmed in color, as some have suggested, it would be repulsive. I think so too.

(If you’re still not freaked out enough. . .a link on another blog led me recently to YouTube videos of Russian experiments in the 1950s that transplanted the head of a dog to the body of a second dog. You really have to see it to believe it, and if you can bear the sadness of those videos, you are a more stoic person than I.)

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