Sometimes a movie is simply too good for just one special edition… Savant reached out to nab a British Region B import of Georges Franju’s horror masterpiece, to sample its enticing extras. And this also gives me the chance to ramble on with more thoughts about this 1959 show that inspired a score of copycats.
Eyes Without a Face (Bfi — U.K.)
Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD
1959 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 90 min. / The Horror Chamber of
Dr. Faustus, House of Dr. Rasanoff, Occhi senza volto / Street Date August 24, 2015 / presently £10.99
Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Alida Valli, Francois Guérin,
Béatrice Altariba, Juliette Mayniel
Cinematography: Eugen Schüfftan
Production Designer: Auguste Capelier
Special Effects: Charles-Henri Assola
Film Editor: Gilbert Natot
Original Music: Maurice Jarre
Written by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Pierre Gascar, Claude Sautet from a novel by Jean Redon
Produced by Jules Borkon
Directed by Georges Franju
Savant has reviewed Eyes Without a Face twice, for both Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray, so what’s this third pass all about? I’ve got two major excuses. The first is to review a different edition with different extras, one of them being a short subject by Georges Franju that I’ve been after ever since reading about it in the Raymond Durgnat Franju book back in 1972. The second is to indulge yet another personal essay.
My overall appreciation of the movie, and Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray disc, is viewable here. In general terms, one can’t go wrong with the Criterion release. Eyes Without a Face is a chilling horror picture that, when explained in simple plot terms, sounds like deplorable pulp trash: a mad doctor, awful surgical crimes, exploitative murders of beautiful women. Just the year before, Astor pictures released a really sleazy item called She Demons, in which a laughably inane Nazi doctor tries to restore his wife’s lost beauty. The obvious path to success is through nonsensical experiments that turn ‘jungle women’ into fanged, rot-faced harpies. Unless one was a genre connoisseur and remembered the surgical horror film Island of Lost Souls, anything mixing evil doctors performing sick surgery on women would in 1959 be considered in totally rotten taste. Throwing in the Nazi angle introduces a further cultural crime, by trivializing the Holocaust.
Eyes Without a Face doesn’t take that approach at all. It is quiet, respectful and has the look of ‘quality’ French cinema. Only limited background exposition is offered for its main characters. Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is a near-celebrity doctor with his own clinic that he runs without supervision. But he maintains a secret surgical lab in his basement for unorthodox experiments. We know that his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) has a fiancé, but we know little about the origin of Louise (Alida Valli), Génessier’s assistant and criminal co-conspirator. The criminal horrors in Eyes Without a Face are so strong that we immediately look for answers in character details, and run into a series of mysteries. Louise was one of Génessier’s earlier surgical success stories, and she wears a pearl necklace to hide a scar on her neck. What’s that all about? Is Louise Génessier’s lover? Possibly, if he’s at all interested in sex. She seems bound to him body and soul, and goes about aiding and abetting his surgical crimes with the clear conscience of a true believer. Raymond Durgnat went as far as to say that the choker pearl collar made Louise seem like Génessier’s dog. Canine loyalty knows no morality. Even Hitler had faithful, beloved dogs.
Everybody has pet theories about Eyes Without a Face, a film that encourages them. From her limited perspective Pauline Kael wondered if Franju wanted to make a statement about medical ethics. Well, duh, that interpretation goes exactly nowhere. An overview of Franju’s work sees isolated characters having difficulty dealing with the general social contract. He often promotes the poetic-subversive notion that the reality we deal with is a mask, behind which lie things we do not wish to acknowledge. All that good meat we eat is derived from the unending slaughter of animals. Not on display in a glorious war museum are the real products of war, maimed and disfigured soldiers. A woman is so desperate to end her domestic despair that she’ll resort to murder, yet the social tyranny is so entrenched that even being caught will not give her closure.
It’s clear in Eyes Without a Face that Franju is wary of respectable men that can operate above the law, without oversight. Like the old French aristocracy, Génessier is rich and famous and has a grotesquely inflated opinion of himself. His disdain for people is such that his patients interest him only to the degree that they enhance his medical reputation. And he’s so selfish that, to mend his disfigured daughter, he’ll kill any number of innocent victims. Franju questions the sincerity of that motive, too. Génessier is not doing this for Christiane, but for himself. She’s only a symbol of a failure that must be corrected.
In 1959 ‘evil’ medical experiments already conjured visions of Mengele & Co., Nazi doctors that conducted atrocities that Edgar Allan Poe or Torquemada wouldn’t have dreamed up. Some of the research justifications for what was done to captives were genuinely disturbing — pain, horror and death were dispensed for vague ‘political’ research, or to study various methods of killing. How much longer can a flyer survive in freezing water, if he has an insulated flight suit? How little insulation is enough? We have some captured Polish fliers, and plenty of cold water…
Génessier is French through and through, although there were French collaborators that outdid the German occupiers for cruelty and torture. I do remember an old 60 Minutes episode about a ‘celebrity’ French plastic surgeon who did wonders with grotesque facial injuries. In his interview he seemed even more arrogant than Génessier, boasting of his god-like status while smoking a cigar.
Dr. Génessier also brings back thoughts of the French serial killer Dr. Petiot, who claimed to be part of the resistance but may have worked for both sides. Foisting the illusion that he ran an underground railroad to Argentina, Petiot took large sums of money from fugitives wanted by the Gestapo, mostly Jews. He murdered them with fake inoculations; as with the Nazis doing the same thing on a grand scale, Petiot’s biggest problem was disposing of the human remains.
Many of Franju’s images seem to extend motifs from Jean Cocteau. Almost every beautiful image in Eyes conjures a poetic association. The lonely trains in the fog are transporting souls to the next life. The naked trees seem like skeletons. A crossing gate may be trying to warn the student Edna Grüber (Juliette Mayniel) not to continue on a trip from which there is no return. The dogs are suffering humanity, and the doves symbolize both Freedom and Madness. Christiane’s mask is a match for Cocteau’s statues in Blood of a Poet; it brings forth all the usual associations with mannequins. The mask erases Christiane’s facial emotions, leaving us with her staring eyes. Edith Scob’s delicate gestures make her resemble illustrations in a fairy tale book. She clasps her hands together in ‘calm’ anxiety, and holds odd poses when she pauses at doorways. Edna arrives at the ‘magic castle’ in the middle of exactly the kind of dark, lonely forest that fairy tale heroines — and practical modern women — should avoid.
It seems natural to form personal interpretations unsupported by the film’s ‘text.’ To me, Génessier didn’t alter Louise’s appearance to cure a deformity, but to hide an old identity. Louise entices women into Dr. Génessier’s lair, kidnapping and imprisoning them, and then disposing of their corpses. Did she have criminality in her background? Is she like one of the former prostitutes and cutthroat women in the next year’s Circus of Horrors, who use their repaired faces to begin new lives as circus performers?
We aren’t allowed to get an easy grip on Franju’s movie. In addition to the unanswered character questions, it refuses to play familiar dramatic games. The police investigation goes nowhere, defeated by Génessier’s façade of respectable normality. The downhearted fiancé doesn’t come to the rescue like Prince Charming. Part of us doesn’t want him to, considering what he’ll find. Much of the dread in Eyes Without a Face is of ‘the worst has already happened’ variety. We also dread Edna’s big escape scene, for fear of seeing her learn what has been done to her. None of these traumas are resolved, which brings unbearable tension to the final scene where Christiane confronts the latest sacrificial victim Paulette (Beatrice Altariba). Lying on the surgery table with linens affixed around her face, Paulette looks just like a nun.
Franju’s movie transcends the horror genre as few films have. I can’t imagine how disturbing it must have been in 1960, with content so much stronger than Psycho. Put off by the subject matter, mainstream reviewers would likely choose not to review it at all. It was much easier to dismiss than assess. As for the progressive French critics, they were too busy promoting the New Wave to waste praise on The Enemy. Even though Franju was unlike any other director of the older generation, he was still part of the establishment that Cahiers du Cinema used as a punching bag in their manifesto-like reviews.
Eyes Without a Face was an outsider from the start, a pariah in the tradition of ‘Quality Cinema’ but also totally unlike its cousins in the commercial horror genre. It makes Hammer films seem tame; if Famous Monsters of Filmland ever ran a photo from the movie, Forry surely didn’t risk his kid-safe reputation with a plot description. It’s unclear how many of the ‘mad surgery’ epics made around 1960 actually imitated Franju, as a couple had preceded it. Since genre filmmaking could be very localized, a film would have to be a blatant rip-off to make us feel certain of a specific influence. It’s also apparent that some ideas were just ‘in the atmosphere’ and waiting to congeal in various places. Peeping Tom, City of the Dead and Psycho all came out at the same time. Although very different in approach, they share similar story structures and themes.
Just for the record the (trustworthy?) IMDB gives Eyes Without a Face a January 1960 French premiere, after several 1959 festival showings. When were other ‘medical horror’ films first shown?
Cunha’s She Demons = January 1958
Trivas’ Die Nackte und der Satan = July 1959
Green’s The Brain that Wouldn’t Die = August 1962, but reportedly filmed in 1959.
Romero and de Leon’s Terror is a Man = November 1959
Majano’s Seddok, l’erede di Satana = August 1960
Ferroni’s Il Mulino delle donne di pietra = October 1960
Furie’s Doctor Blood’s Coffin = January 1961
Franco’s Gritos en la noche = May 1962
This of course doesn’t take into account Reginald le Borg’s gothic mad surgery film The Black Sleep from way back in June of 1956, or several Mexican ‘medical horrors’ that had been circulating for the better part of a decade, certainly in Europe if not in the States. Chano Urueta’s El monstruo resuscitado (1953) has mad surgery galore, and it was made in 1953.
The Bfi’s Region B Blu-ray + DVD of Eyes Without a Face carries essentially the same scan of George Franju’s 1959 horror film as sold here by Criterion, with the same excellent image and the same audio track that brings out every dog bark in the Génessier mansion and every razor-sharp violin note in Maurice Jarre’s literally spine-tingling music score. Why order it from the U.K. and wait four weeks for delivery? For the extras.
The Bfi’s special edition includes a PAL DVD copy (I should play it to see if it’s sped-up) and a fat illustrated booklet with several insightful essays. One of them is the entire chapter on the film from Raymond Durgnat’s old Franju book, long out of print. That critic was into film in a way I could always relate to and is one of the few critics I still read for pleasure.
Our portrait of Georges Franju improves with an hour-long documentary about his life and films, which draws upon interviews with people who knew and worked with him. Franju seems eccentric but not off-putting, mildly obsessed with his artistic ideas and not too interested in money, bold career steps or even career survival. It’s a lot more satisfying than Criterion’s main extra, a clip from a French TV show where Franju must play the patsy for a horror host, on a set with a bubbling ‘mad doctor’ lab setup.
Edith Scob further gilds the Franju legend with a glowing report on her experience with him. She realizes that she was his muse. He cast her in a major role in Judex and in smaller roles in two other pictures.
In order of ascending impression comes Tim Lucas’s commentary, which is even more reverential than his talks about his favorite Mario Bava pictures. Lucas recognizes Eyes Without a Face as a top rung classic and Franju as a brilliant filmmaker with a truly unique vision, and spends the entire running time dispensing information he has gleaned from many sources, not just Franju’s champion Raymond Durgnat. Lucas’s visual analysis quotes other authors, and the filmmaker himself, but also expresses his own reactions to the film. His pet theories are better than my own for originality. His reasoned take on Génessier’s motivation for restoring his daughter’s beauty is based on the clue that the doctor was obsessed with his lost wife. I have to admit that I never even wondered who mothered Christiane, and assumed that the painting on the wall was of her, not the mother. Lucas thinks that there’s a sublimated incest theme, and that Génessier wants Christine for himself. I agree that the doctor is certainly selfish enough to embrace any and all perversions, but I just don’t see him being interested in sex — his self-adoration is so acute that he needs other people mainly to serve him. Since we never see the doctor lose his temper, we can’t quite imagine what would have made him go crazy and cause the accident that disfigured Christiane. Tim smartly follows the rule of dramatic economy, intuiting that incestuous jealousy over her fiancé Jacques (François Guérin) would be a prime reason. But the movie itself doesn’t really leave any more clues pointing in that direction. It’s a fascinating commentary, and worth the overseas purchase.
The primary reason I bought the English disc, however, was for La Première nuit, a Franju film I have wanted to see for 45 years. His last short subject before graduating to features, it’s the impressionistic adventure of a rich boy who evades his father’s chauffeur and spends the night in the Paris Métro, determined to find a little girl he saw on the street. He sees, or hallucinates seeing her several times, and then falls asleep. He then dreams of having a ‘pas de deux’ with her, not together but in different trains on parallel tracks, staring at each other only a few inches apart, through the windows. The girl hovers in place for a while, drifts to the left and to the right, and then zooms away as her train takes a higher track. It’s an inspired scene that implies more than we see. Is this a human relationship in miniature, with two lovers never quite connecting, and always aware of an inevitable parting? It’s an accurate portrayal of love from the POV of a ten year-old male of that era — squeaky- clean but definitely sexual. The short subject is beautifully restored.
A second Franju short Monsieur et Madame Curie from 1953 is not in such pristine shape. Quotes from Curie’s diary accompany recreations showing how Spartan and primitive were the facilities she and her husband used to make some of the most important discoveries of all time. One trucking shot to a window lets us see Madame Curie in the yard below, doing backbreaking labor with a vat of (radioactive?) matter central to their research. The coda lets us know that they died in the midst of their work, never knowing how it would be the basis of an entire new science.
The only Criterion extras that the Bfi disc really lacks are a featurette about the writers Boileau and Narcejac, and the film’s original trailers. The French trailer for Eyes Without a Face is the best horror trailer ever made… even after seeing the film it makes one shiver, and raises anticipation for something phenomenally dreadful. The American trailer is a tacky exploitation tie-in with the grotesque The Manster, and must be seen to be believed.
A potential extra that neither disc includes is something I’m not certain I even want to see: a legendary outtake of an alternate ending. Writing at One A.M., I’m suddenly not sure if I haven’t invented it as well. Wasn’t it illustrated with a blurry frame grab in an issue of Video Watchdog? I don’t believe that Tim Lucas mentions it.
I’ve decided to put my personal essay about ‘chasing Eyes w/o a Face’
below, in a post-script. A part of me says that I’m really over-writing this one.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Eyes Without a Face (Bfi) Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary by film expert Tim Lucas; two Georges Franju short subjects: Monsieur et Madame Curie (1953, 14 mins), and La Première nuit (1958, 20 mins); 2009 Franju career overview docu Les Fleurs maladives de Georges Franju (2009, 50 mins): interview with Edith Scob (2014, 17 mins). Plus illustrated booklet with essays from Kate Ince, Isabel Stevens, Roberto Cueto Llera, Raymond Durgnat, Kevin Jackson and Michael Brooke.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 9, 2017
A Personal Essay about movie obsessions in ‘the old days.’
As I hold in my hands what ought to be considered a miracle — an excellent copy of a theatrical film that I can see whenever I wish — I feel compelled to explain to slightly younger fans what it once felt like to not have ready access to coveted movies, even in Los Angeles with its multiple venues for revival screenings. Since the 1998 DVD explosion we’re accustomed to demanding for ‘someone’ to release all of our favorite films for home use. The market is tilting now toward downloading and streaming, but even my new-media savvy friends tell me that, if one wants to know that a title will be available for viewing later, hard media is the way to go. It’s too expensive, but so are books. Discs take up space, but what doesn’t?
Back in the early 1970s when there was no home video, no Internet and no comprehensive literature on genre films, movie discoveries tended to be personal in nature. Friends TOLD one about movies you hadn’t a chance to see. We ignorant kids thought that what we could see on TV was pretty much what was available, until I got to college and saw books brimming with important filmmakers I never heard of, and rental catalogs that did the same for 1001 pictures equally unknown. Thus began a process of seeing everything we could — free screenings in film school were often the best, when one’s first exposure to The Searchers, Dead of Night, Sunrise and It’s A Wonderful Life came with pristine, perfect prints on a giant, clear screen. The County Museum of Art had regular screenings of studio prints, sometimes with the movie stars themselves in attendance. Great places like The Vagabond and the Encore also showed 35mm studio prints, often in nitrate: where was the fire marshal? Before they were lost forever in their original form, I got to see several Val Lewton movies and all the Selznick pictures in one-of-a-kind prints. And on the way back to UCLA, there was always Pink’s for a chili dog. You could be poor in Los Angeles back then. College dates would take that kind of abuse and not complain.
But James Ursini at the UCLA Research Library Theater Arts reading room showed me just what I was missing. An expert on horror pictures, Ursini searched the movie logs from Santa Barbara to San Diego to see if anyone had pulled an old print out of a vault as a second feature. He had once seen Freda’s The Ghost that way. The library had a full run of Monthly Film Bulletin magazines, which covered everything shown in the U.K.; the magazine routinely disparaged cheap American genre films but doted on silent revivals and anything from Italy, no matter how dire. I bought a mangled print of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock from Bob Birchard. The only serious words I could read about it were in the MFB, along with references in Ursini’s old issues of Mini-Minuit Fantastique. When the continental coffee table books L’erotisme au cinema arrived at the library, showing hundreds of photos of salacious scenes, they included quite a bit of risqué material with Barbara Steele, etc.. But Ursini said that none of that material could have been shown in Italian movies, due to the censorship. The whole realm of Eurohorror was a mystery, a potential garden of cinematic delights. I think it was 1988 before I saw a Eurohorror film in its original form and language, through a Sinister Cinema VHS: hey, the music in Black Sunday is different, and a couple of scenes don’t fade out so quickly! But only through DVD did we really begin to see reasonable restorations, so that that we could appreciate the amazing body of horror and sci-fi fantasy mostly unknown to these shores.
In 1971 or so somebody named Harriet Diamond began screening midnight movies at the Plaza Theater in Westwood. That’s where I first saw The Fearless Vampire Killers and Danger: Diabolik in breathtaking color. To see them again I would have to arrange for my dorm to rent them from Films Incorporated. It was disheartening to walk back at 2 a.m., trying to fix in my mind details of films I might never see again. And the same feeling cropped up the next day, when I could no longer exactly recall the films’ incredible music. Before home video, everything was ephemeral.
I first saw Eyes Without a Face through Harriet Diamond, in a crummy 16mm print of The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. I wouldn’t be surprised if United Artists no longer had a 35mm print for her to rent. Cut up and dubbed, it still knocked me for a loop, and I went to see it again for its second showing, the next night. Diamond had no poster or ad, and as the nights were rainy I shared the theater with maybe twenty people each time. But I walked home completely changed; it felt like I now had a ‘secret cinema’ that showed things nobody else had seen.
Again, the lack of availability made certain movies ‘bigger than life.’ I considered myself lucky that I found three or four worn Dr. Faustus film stills from Larry Edmunds. The withdrawn Vertigo was shown a couple of times, at FILMEX and at the Museum, but I didn’t see Eyes Without a Face again until the 1980 FILMEX horror marathon, where it played again in 16mm, but a good original print in French. I dragged my wife and friend Rocco Gioffre to the screening, and sat like a zombie staring at the screen, soaking it up. The tired audience was waiting, I think, for the premiere of Joe Dante’s The Howling, and had no patience for the film’s slow opening. There was even a catcall or two for something to happen. But excited applause broke out the moment Dr. Génessier chloroformed Edna Grüber, and the applause and screams of approval built with each scene of horror. The Fairfax Theater was packed with a thousand horror film fans, and the main surgery scene knocked them for a loop. Eyes without a Face was no longer an obscure picture in Los Angeles.
I never caught Eyes Without a Face in a 35mm film screening; the time I talked a group into seeing it at the Nuart, they screened 16mm again. It, Vertigo, Danger: Diabolik, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and The Seventh Victim were films that had to wait a decade each to be seen. Each seemed to grow in importance, the longer it took for them to be available. This may sound too much like the story of the bibliophile who brags about walking miles in the snow to get to the library. No, I can’t say that these formative experiences were like that. Obviously, living in Los Angeles when rent was cheap, owning a car and having the freedom to see films was a blessing, and surely kept me from concentrating on my quote-unquote career as much as I should have. But I can’t see these films today without the baggage that goes with them. A lot of people must have the exact same experience, but that doesn’t diminish the feeling.
I must have re-read Durgnat’s essay on Eyes Without a Face fifty times, without seeing the movie. Perhaps misreading a sentence, I somehow invented (through a dream?) a scene in the movie that’s not there. I imagined another down-shot of Génessier’s Citröen making an arc around the circular parking plaza outside that eerie Paris morgue. In my fantasy (I can see it in my head) that shot dissolved to Génessier’s scalpel making the exact same motion around the edges of Juliette Mayniel’s face. I once asked Steven Spielberg about this. A similar dissolve or wipe in his Amblin’ links the white center stripe painted on a desert roadway, with a close-up of the links in the zipper of a sleeping bag. Once a dippy films student, always a dippy film student — I asked Spielberg if he’d taken the idea from Eyes Without a Face. He gave me a civil answer — he’d never heard of Eyes Without a Face and he’d never heard of George Franju. Spielberg didn’t say so, but he clearly wasn’t interested in obscure foreign films or their directors. Lesson learned.
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson