Director: Georges Franju
Cast: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, François Guérin, Edith Scob, Juliette Mayniel, Alexandre Rignault
Length: 90 min
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Type: B & W
Audio: French: LPCM Master Audio 2.0
One of the most important genre blu-ray releases this year comes from Criterion on October 15th in the form of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage – 1960). The film is unique in the history of French cinema. Part horror film, part poetic fantasy, part surrealist nightmare, the film does not strictly adhere to any convention, but distills a dream logic all its own, and once you’ve seen it, its images are likely to haunt you for the rest of your life.
On the surface, the plot of Eyes Without a Face could have easily been concocted by Universal Pictures for one of their Karloff or Lugosi vehicles. A brilliant surgeon, who feels responsible for the horrific disfigurement of his beautiful daughter in a car accident, embarks on a quest to restore her beauty via a complete facial transplant. The caveat is, the face donors must be living young women, and so the good doctor, assisted by his female companion, embarks on a ghoulish murder spree.The greatness of Franju’s vision lies not so much in the narrative, but in the execution. Stylistically, the film owes more to the surreal fantasy world of Jean Cocteau than to the expressionism of James Whale. As film critic Dan Kimmel points out, Franju’s “mad scientist” is no Ernest Thesiger cackling with glee as he conducts his evil experiments. Instead, he is a calm and ruthless pragmatist who would be more at home conducting experiments alongside Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. Likewise, the setting—the laboratory—is no decrepit windmill with fog rolling in and with a thunderstorm in the heavens. Instead, it is a formal place of work. There’s nothing particularly exceptional about it.
The centerpiece of the film is the ghoulish surgery scene where the facial transplant takes place. And this too is done with enviable restraint. There’s no music, no eerie sound effects and no dramatic gestures from the actors. The whole operation is methodical, almost procedural in its patient pacing. And therein lies the true horror of the film. Franju did something very similar in Blood of the Beasts (1949), a 20-minute short that’s also included on this blu-ray. In it, Franju takes us inside a Paris slaughter house where we witness the slaughter of animals. Again, the butchery is utterly mundane—just a group of men going about their daily chores. Why is it so horrifying? Because the viewer’s experience is not shared, as Franju explained in an interview.But perhaps the most enduring images from Eyes Without a Face are of Edith Scob gliding like an apparition through the halls of her father’s mansion, in her mask, longing to hear a human voice other than her father’s or his assistant’s. The mask conceals her deformity and also acts as a symbol of her father’s dominance over her, depriving her of an identity. It’s a beautiful and haunting visual device.
Of course I have to mention the music score of Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia). It seems incongruous to have, what sounds like carnival or circus music play while Alida Valli is hunting for fresh victims, but it works beautifully by providing a counterpoint to what is happening on screen. This score may not be as immediately accessible as Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago, but after living with it for a while, it grows on you and begins to haunt you as much as the film’s images.
In 2004 Criterion released Eyes Without a Face on DVD for the first time. Already, the video transfer was the best the film has ever received. Now, Criterion takes things several notches beyond even that standard and gives us a satisfyingly film-like transfer. Fine grain is present throughout, clarity and detail are enhanced (but never look artificial), and the subtle gradation of black and white looks strikingly beautiful throughout. There is really no criticism at all on technical grounds.
The uncompressed mono track sounds a little fuller, with a slightly wider range than before, but of course there is only so much that can be done with the original. Suffice to say that the sound is true to its vintage source and, like the video, has not been overly tinkered with. Dialog is crystal clear and the music score is a pleasure to listen to.
As usual for Criterion, there are a number of very fine extra features included with this release. As mentioned above, there is another short film: Blood of the Beasts, Georges Franju’s 1949 documentary about the slaughterhouses of Paris, which has also been restored in 1080p. It’s an important work in Franju’s oeuvre, but a fair warning to the casual viewer….it could turn one into a vegetarian.
Next, we have archival interviews with Franju on the horror genre, cinema, and the making of Blood of the Beasts.
Next is a new interview with actor Edith Scob (Blu-ray only), in which she discusses how she was chosen to star in Eyes Without a Face and working with Franju.
Next are excerpts from Les grands-pères du crime, a 1985 documentary about Eyes Without a Face writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.
There are also trailers, a stills gallery of rare production photos and promotional material (DVD only), plus, a booklet featuring essays by novelist Patrick McGrath and film historian David Kalat.
Eyes Without a Face can’t be neatly categorized. What’s more, viewers accustomed to today’s ‘in your face’ pacing of horror movies may find this slow and even ponderous at times. But if you come to it with an open mind and allow it to work its magic, you may come away having had a profound cinematic experience. Of all the genre releases this year, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face is the one most worth watching and forming an opinion on.