Anxiety I

film 2 of 4

Eyes Without a Face

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 14, 2015

We studied the horror film in a genres class, and looked at Eyes Without a Face as an example of poetic cinema, or a poetic horror film. That is true, what with the way they play of circus music while this character prepares to kill that one. But for all of its undoubted poetry, Georges Franju’s film is just as much a demonstration of misanthropy, and sadism. Or maybe even perversion. There’s no shot/reverse shot to help us identify with these victims. There’s no heightening to provide cinematic catharsis, or to affirm reassuringly that this is make-believe, or just a movie. There’s just that astonishing, unutterably cruel surgery sequence. It gives contemporary audiences made up of jaded young people the willies. What must it have done in the mid-50s?

The placement of this surgery scene is actually quite interesting. Structurally, it slots in as a bit of rising action. But in terms of filmmaker focus and investment it’s the clear climax of the entire film. An entire career? It’s certainly a real milestone in the evolution of the horror genre. It’s visceral, undeniable—there’s no shrugging this one off, no possibility of just leaving it in the theatre as you go on for further recreation.

As mentioned, there is a poetic component to the film, and its poetry does in some way pull against the strong havoc that it so vividly wreaks. Edith Scob, masked and not, is a remarkably ethereal fairy tale presence. Her father—generically representing the mad scientist, or presumptuous man, digging where he was not meant to delve—is a powerful fairy tale patriarch. (Take note of Pierre Brasseur’s bone-breakingly confident performance.) Subtle too: he’s a scourge, but he has his real affections, and real reasons too.

In the end, though, at least as I see it this time around, I come back to how hard this is. To what might we compare it? In some ways the film itself is sui generis. But its sensibility is not without precedent. Though there is plenty more to his career, it seems to me that Eyes Without a Face does see its co-writer/director Franju channeling that great cinematic misanthrope, Henri-Georges Clouzot. And actually, it’s also a lot like Gustave Flaubert. It is a careful, methodical, even sort of leisurely explication of a really disastrous, really horrific series of events. Instead of Emma Bovary’s black vomitus, it ends with a scalpel in the throat. And some poetical doves. Either way, though, we spin our own webs, and we will be caught up in them. Remarkable, epochal, and a nasty piece of work.