Eyes Without a Face
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Rarely has a movie been simultaneously as beautiful and horrifying as Eyes Without a Face (1959). Photographed by the great Eugen Schüfftan (who would win a Best Cinematography Academy Award in 1961 for Robert Rossen's The Hustler) and directed by Georges Franju (co-founder with Henri Langlois of the Cinematheque Franšaise), Eyes Without a Face is one of the great horror movies. While Franju was the guiding influence behind one of the world's great film archives, that doesn't mean he was fixated on art films. He had a strong appreciation for genre films. His Eyes Without a Face elegantly bridges this dichotomy of filmmaking intentions, reinforcing (for those people who need a reminder) that genre films—horror films in particular—can be beautiful as well as wicked.

Eyes Without a Face followed in the wake of movies such as Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula. These movies helped to loosen censorship restraints and pave the way for more graphically horrific films, but more importantly these films proved that a considerable market existed for horror cinema. Censorship restrictions were still fairly strong in France, however, so when producer Jules Borkon pitched the idea to Franju of filming an adaptation of a horror novel by Jean Redon, he had several stipulations: 1) the lead character couldn't be depicted as a mad scientist, 2) there shouldn't be too much blood, and 3) no animals could be tortured (as happens in the novel). Franju accepted the stipulations and enlisted screenwriters Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who had already worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Vertigo and Henri-Georges Clouzot on Les Diaboliques (the latter was based on their own novel). It's appropriate that Boileau and Norcejac had worked on Vertigo because some of the same themes are present here, particularly the obsession to restore a woman who had met a grisly fate.

Pierre Brasseur (who had starred in Children of Paradise and Port of Shadows) stars as Doctor Génessier. Several months before the movie begins, Génessier was driving when his car went off the road and his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), was horribly scarred. Through his intense guilt over her disfiguration, Dr. Génessier works to discover a way to restore her face. However, his methods require a skin graft of another young woman's entire face—so he doesn't exactly have many volunteers. Rather, Génessier uses an accomplice, Louise (Alida Valli), to lure beautiful young women within his grasp, who become the unwilling subjects of his experiments. Franju spares no details as he shows us an operation that literally lifts a woman's face in one piece. This is one of the movie's most horrific images as Génessier slices the woman's face with a scalpel and holds the edges of skin with an array of clamps. If filmed in color, this scene would likely have been too much for audiences to handle, but in black and white, the scene becomes more like a clinical record instead of gory exploitation.

While the plot is propelled by the efforts of Génessier and Louise as they transplant faces and subsequently dispose of bodies, the movie is nonetheless centered on Christiane. She wears a smooth white mask to cover her scarred face. The mask only allows us to see her eyes and lips. Scob's large mournful eyes become the heart of the movie. She's like an actress in a silent movie, almost never speaking, as if she's too fragile to attempt speech. She prowls the halls of the Génessier mansion while wearing a stiff, floor-length housecoat that gives little evidence of her legs moving when she walks. She seems to glide through the hallways and down the staircases like a beautiful, fragile porcelain figurine. The expressionless face/mask and the white housecoat have the effect of idealizing Christiane and turning her into a near magical figure of god-like powers who communes with doves and pities the dogs in Génessier's kennel. Watching this breathtakingly beautiful woman move through the mansion is simultaneously enchanting and painful. We only see Edith Scob's face in one scene. This comes after a transplant has given Christiane a new face. The bandages are removed to reveal a face so perfect that it practically breaks your heart to know the beauty won't last—that the graft is ultimately destined for failure.

Eyes Without a Face also gains considerable weight from the presence of Alida Valli. With her, we get an orchestral score by Maurice Jarre that evokes the zither score for The Third Man. The illusion is completed with the tree-lined rural boulevards that Louise drives down, making her a direct descendant of Anna Schmidt in Carol Reed's great film. It's as if we're witnessing what has happened to Anna Schmidt a decade after she walked past Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) at the conclusion of The Third Man. (Within the next five years, composer Jarre would win Academy Awards for both Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.)

When Eyes Without a Face played in America theaters, it was given an exploitation title, The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, and teamed on a double bill with a low-budget shocker, The Manster. Fanju's film deserved a better fate. Now The Criterion Collection has restored some dignity to this hallmark of horror cinema with a DVD release of the original French version of this classic and packaged together several compelling extras, such as Franju's notorious documentary Blood of the Beasts, which takes us into the slaughterhouses of Paris. In addition, this disc contains several short interviews with Franju, as well as an except from a documentary that features screenwriters Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Most importantly, though, the Criterion Collection has cleaned thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches from the 35mm fine-grain positive and provided Eyes Without a Face in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Now the pictorial beauty of this hallmark of fantastic cinema can once again be enjoyed to its fullest.

Eyes Without a Face is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new, restored high-definition digital transfer. Special features: Blood of the Beasts, Georges Franju's 1949 documentary about the slaughterhouses of Paris; archival interviews with Franju on horror, cinema, and the making of Blood of the Beasts; an excerpt from Les Grands-peres du crime, a documentary featuring Eyes Without a Face screenwriters Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac; theatrical trailers; and a stills gallery of rare production photos and promotional material. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.