Eyes Without a Face

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(1960, directed by Georges Franju)

- inducted 2019 –

“I first saw George Franju’s Eyes Without A Face on a gray market dupe under the title ‘The Horror Chamber of Doctor Faustus.’ It’s a title that, broadly speaking, fits the film even if the name of the doctor isn’t ‘Faustus.’ To describe the plot of the film, in which a mad plastic surgeon murders women in order to graft their faces onto the ruined face of his daughter, is to conjure up a lurid picture of an exploitation film. And the film lives up to that title, too, in a stomach-churning surgical sequence that’s filmed with a dispassionate, clinical clarity. It’s a film that is an affront to an unprepared audience.

“Certainly, continental directors spent a fair amount of time and energy making rip-offs of the film in the 1960s. The Spanish exploitation director, Jess Franco parlayed his own rip-off of Eyes Without a Face into a series of films about ‘The Awful Dr. Orloff.’ It borrows the plot and echoes the alternate title, but misses the poetry. It’s the poetry of Eyes Without a Face that lingers long after the bruise of its initial impact has faded. Its later imitators are more rarified (most famously, Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky). But even these are grasping after a phantom, an ineffable otherness that haunts the images in Franju’s film that cannot be replicated.

“It’s a film of primal images translated from the darkest European myths into a contemporary (in 1959) post war France. Dr. Genessier would have been a familiar figure to an audience for whom the Nazi doctors were a fresh memory. It’s a film, too, about identity. Genessier himself presents one face to the world while his true self is something else entirely. Like the Nazis, Genessier is an upright pillar of his community when he’s not committing atrocities. His nurse, Louise, presents a different picture: in his home, she’s the loyal servant, perhaps in love with Genessier to the point of madness. Out in the world, she’s something more sinister, dressed in her rain slicker, picking up potential victims. She’s a serial killer who believes in her crimes. Love is prime mover of this film’s plot, and it is well aware of the fact that horrors without number have been committed in the name of love. The film frames its images in a narrative that is by turns dreamlike and crystal clear. It looks backward to the symbolists and to Jean Cocteau and sideways at Alain Resnais, but in a French cinema that never made all that many horror movies, it is sui generis.

“I need to own up to personal elements of my relationship with Eyes Without a Face. When I had the opportunity to choose my own name after my gender transition, I chose to name myself after Edith’s Scob’s character, Christiane Genessier. She’s the masked princess drifting through the gothic castle of her mad sorcerer of a father. Obviously, the film is meaningful to me in a way that might not resonate with all audiences. For me, it strikes a deep chord of melancholy because it’s fundamentally about the imposition of gender norms on subjugated women by a patriarchy that has determined that a woman’s worth is found in what she looks like. It’s a microcosm of the concerns of feminism and humanity itself balled up inside a dark fairy tale, touching on the agency of women, women acting as the kapos of the patriarchy (this is Alida Valli’s sinister nurse), of bodily autonomy, of some women being disposable once men get what they want from them. I feel a deep kinship with Christiane Genessier, who is subject to a society and a father who believe her body has to appear one way even when that one way is impossible. In the end, she can’t live with the monstrosity in either such an oppressive family life or in herself. It’s every bit the same kind of nightmare as The Handmaid’s Tale or ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ Issues of bodily autonomy are literally the thread of life for me. If I was imprisoned in the body I was issued at birth, I would be dead. Christiane Genessier has no prince charming to save her, but she eventually takes control of her own destiny and saves herself, wandering into the night like a ghost, drifting to an uncertain future.

“This is one of the greatest of all horror movies.” ~ Christianne Benedict

Original title: Les Yeux Sans Visage
Principal cast: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel, Alexandre Rignault, Beatrice Altariba, Blavette, Claude Brasseur, Michelle Etcheverry, Yvette Etievent, René Génin, Lucien Hubert, Marcel Pères, Francois Guerin, Edith Scob
Adaptation by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Jean Redon, Claude Sautet
Dialogue by Pierre Gascar
Based on the novel by Jean Redon
Produced by Jules Borkon
Director of photography: Eugen Shuftan
Production design by Auguste Capelier, Margot Capelier
Costume design by Marie Martine
Film editing by Gilbert Natot
Original music by Maurice Jarre
Makeup artist: Georges Klein
Hair stylist: Marcelle Testard
Sound by Antoine Archimbaud
Special effects by Henri Assola

FRANCE/ITALY
Duration: 90 minutes
Languages: French
Filmed in black and white
Sound mix: Mono (Western Electric Recording)
Cinematographic process: Spherical
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Printed film format: 35mm

Produced by Lux Film, Champs-Élysées Productions
Released in USA by Lopert Pictures
Premiered in France on February 11, 1960
USA release date: October 24, 1962

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