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  • Ravi Swami

"Les Yeux Sans Visage" Dir: Georges Franju, 1960

Updated: Feb 13, 2021

What leads you to watch certain films can vary from person to person, it might be a genre choice, or following a particular film movement, like French New Wave etc - it could even be a piece of music.

I'd heard of "Les Yeux Sans Visage" (English title: "Eyes Without a Face") and having read a synopsis a long time ago marked it down as a film I'd rather avoid - the synopsis was enough to suggest that it fitted into the horror genre, which I'm not a huge fan of even if some earlier blog entries on here would suggest otherwise.

A friend had quoted it and I'm guessing that he may have first been drawn to it out of curiousity about the lyrics to a Billy Idol song with the same title, since he isn't a fan of horror films in particular - anyway, it came with a recommendation, which is always handy when it comes to deciding what to watch.

The film is included in amongst the BFI collection of French cinema classics available to view on BFI Player.

Based on a literary work, it could be described as a very French take on the early Hollywood horror genre - all the tropes are present, a mad scientist in an isolated castle with his obedient servant and carrying out ungodly experiments out of the sight of the rest of humanity, but here the "mad scientist" is a plastic surgeon obsessed with restoring the disfigured face of his once beautiful daughter, the result of terrible car accident that he blames himself for - hence the suggestive title - and his obedient servant isn't a hunchbacked dwarf but his beautiful wife / partner (we are never sure) whose job it is to lure young women to the chateau to be unwilling donors to the doctors efforts, and who is conflicted by her feelings of devotion and guilt.

The film is unfinchingly graphic in showing a scene where the doctor removes a victims' face in a way that might have been avoided for reasons of censorship in some countries and indeed this led to it being held back or edited on its release since it is shocking in a way that many horror films aren't - tone is everything and where many horror films feature exaggerated performances and scenes for a visceral, almost dream-like effect, here you are forced to watch something like a bystander in an operating theatre, which is a very different kind of horror.

As a story it sits within a genre termed as "Grand Guignol" that has its origins in French theatre, a prime example of which is "The Phantom of The Opera", and here we see the disfigured woman forced to wear a mask during the daytime when she isn't confined to her top floor bedroom - scenes where she wanders silently through the rooms of the chateau have an etherial fairytale quality at odds with the tone of the rest of the film, which is more like the gritty retelling of the activities of Burke and Hare.

On it's release some critics expressed a dissatisfaction that the film never seems to aim for any kind of subtext, and rather like Hitchcock's "Psycho", this a story that suggests that terrible things can happen, and not necessarily confined to remote Transylvanian settings but mundane settings like cities and suburbia, and additionally that the genre and style of film-making belonged to an earlier era - although it's film of the 1960's, when the French New Wave was on the rise, it's still considered as an example of a change of direction in French cinema, even if cinematically it looks back to the Expressionist movement of the 20's and 30's (the cinematographer was Eugen Schüfftan), if a short-lived one, as an exploration of a different, perhaps less popular genre in French films.

I would argue that there is a subtext, taking into consideration the period that it was made and also references made about the doctors' assistant being a "foreigner" due to her accent - while it is never made explicit, it's possible that she might be German, and being set in the post-war years when memories of experiments being carried out on prisoners of the Nazi's were fresh in  people's minds there is the possibility that the film hints at a kind of scientific arrogance.

This is made clear in scenes where the doctor sees patients at his clinic - he is invested with an almost god-like status and his knowledge is accepted without question - science is the answer to everything and the scientist is invested with god-like status in this new Atomic Age - in this sense the film mines a similar vein as "Frankenstein".

But of course the scientist isn't a god and the skin grafts fail as repeatedly as the tally of donors sacrificed to his obsession increases.

The film's dreadful conclusion is a kind of karmic pay-back for the doctor and his assistant and is very much in keeping with the Grand Guignol tradition - in that sense the film is an interesting collision of straightforward detective story set in the real world as the police struggle to uncover the culprit behind a series of mysterious deaths of young women and a gothic horror story.   

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