Quality film news, reviews and features
18th March 2005 06:00:00
Posted by Kevin Gilvear

Eyes without a Face

DVD Video Review
How much fantasy can be merged with reality when it comes to making a horror movie? It's the kind of question that Georges Franju has had to mull over in the past. What makes a film truly scary? The more it's grounded in reality perhaps. The fact that somebody is capable of performing hideous and shameless acts upon another person, without regret or remorse. The fact that one person can be standing on the street one day and the next be lying in a ditch somewhere. It's Franju's dedication to what can be considered as reality as opposed to the fantastique that so often infringes upon the horror genre. Eyes Without a Face is fantastique only by its haunting depiction but over the years its influence has lent itself to a great assortment of movies.

In 1962 Jesus Franco took the best bits, quite notoriously and turned out an all round trashy exploitive sex/murder movie which hardly tapped into the recesses of the mind quite like Franju's earlier work did. The Awful Dr. Orlof isn't a criminally bad movie, it's just a lazy one that gets off on using others ideas to a less successful degree. Even today the fascination with cosmetic surgery no matter what the purpose is one that is rarely put down. Several years ago even one of Hong Kong's greatest action directors, John Woo turned the idea into an interesting concept with Face Off.

So what's the fascination with the human face? The fragility of it? The way it can be contorted, broken, changed to look like someone else? The eyes - we become scared by how disgustingly they can be mistreated in cinema and they're often the source of horror with directors playing upon the window to the soul idea. Yes, Franju captures everything within his title, what we consider to be pretty can also be hideously grotesque and yet Eyes without a Face remains a beautiful film.


If not for particular moments in the story the film can largely be praised for its visual style, mostly set in Dr. Genessier's home that is as much an important part of the film as any other actor. Much like Hitchcock's Psycho we are carried through large portions of the film, where actor and location is married in order to accomplish a more haunting atmosphere. It is during the moments when Christiane slowly descends the stair case from her room and cautiously creeps around her own home that the eeriness sets in, and of course not to mention the most famous scene of all that inspired so many directors afterward. But there's something about the aesthetic approach that is also cold and expressionless. Franju sets up shot by shot by taking up some curious angles and drapes the walls in plenty of huge shadows as if to make the environment look smaller than it is at times. Supposing it can be considered a prison for Christiane this works relatively well but how does it do when it comes to reflecting the characters? The simple answer would be that it's too nice and this is why it works well. The Genessier household was always a nice place, the father was a nice one, and his wife also I'm sure. There's no lingering hatred that runs throughout the household and its plain white walls justify this. Sterile would be a better way of summing it up, it's far too clean above, while below the real dirt lies in the form of the surgery and this places more emphasis on the good man doing bad things.

Adorning the film's aesthetic splendour is the central figure herself, Christiane who walks sullenly throughout the household wearing a rubber mask, moulded from her real face. The surroundings wouldn't be half as effectively creepy if they had been missing this presence. While we don’t often see Christiane's face in the flesh we see it from a guarded standpoint. Here Franju seems to address the lengths that one would go to hide their face from a public easily disgusted by another's deformity. Or rather it isn't Christiane's choice but that of her father who tells her she must always wear her mask, as if disgusted himself by looking at the face he recklessly destroyed, which in turns begs the question of why is he doing this? Dr. Genessier insists that he is doing this all for the love of his daughter, but it only goes to fuel a contradictory nature. The doctor certainly isn't mad; he's not a crazy surgeon - he knows exactly what he's doing. He is on the other hand a selfish man and try as he might to convince Christiane that he wants to give her a new face out of love he is doing this as much for himself as he wants to pioneer the techniques, as well as free his conscience. Franju's intent doesn't seem quite so clear-cut, but it causes interesting debate.

Additionally the film wants us to sympathise with Christiane and to a large degree we do, but Franju twists the knife at many points, thus the terror and pain she feels for herself is divided and placed on several other victims. The film no longer becomes about Christiane per se, but those who find her appearance disgusting. It's a cheap move from Franju, designed to cause a shock reaction from the audience, the audience of course being put into the position of Edna when she sees Christiane for the first time. There's a certain amount of insecurity as to what is trying to be achieved on screen but as the case may be there's no denying it's a forceful and often powerful piece of work.

To sum up - Eyes without a Face is one of the pinnacles of motion picture horror. 45 years later and we can still be excited by its beauty and occasional visceral appearance, the attention to detail and its unnerving scenes of surgery (that for its time are executed so perfectly, though perhaps scientifically flawed, not that it mattered to audiences of the time) and depression that rarely can be matched these days in such an artistic way. George Franju arguably made his finest film in the form of Eyes without a Face; most certainly it will be the one that he'll be best remembered for, which I'm sure Mr. Franju wouldn't mind. He has successfully contributed to the genre one of the world's finest tales of horror (flaws notwithstanding) and one which every self-respecting fan should immediately set out to see.

The DVD

Trust Criterion to rarely disappoint. When it was learned that they had acquired this title fans rejoiced. How could this possibly fail? The answer is that it doesn't. This is as perfect a release as you could hope for. Also included is a fold out booklet with notes by historian, David Kalat and author, Patrick McGrath.

A/V


Eyes without a Face is presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio of 1.66:1, which is the film's original presentation. This transfer has been taken from a High-Definition digital source, created on a Spirit Dacacine from a 35mm fine-grain master positive (as described in the accompanying notes). The film has been cleaned up immensely using MTI Digital Restoration and the finished results are stunning. While the film still exhibits some scratches and other marks there's no denying how brilliant it looks, better than ever if all you're used to is watching the VHS release. The clarity of this transfer is remarkable, with plenty of detail and as for black and contrast levels they're simply perfect. I failed to pick up on strong Edge Enhancement which is wonderful as Criterion have managed to do the film justice without having to heavily rely on such tricks. It's hard to do the transfer justice as it is, seeing it for yourselves is easily the best bet.

The soundtrack has been restored from a 16mm optical negative track and mastered in 24-bit. This preserves the original track but cleans up hiss and crackling. Again the results are top notch. The track is very clean with not much in the way of background interference. The signal is Dolby Digital 1.0 and presents itself centrally on surround set ups and on standard TV sets through both speakers. At all times the dialogue is easy to listen to and Maurice Jarre's strangely eccentric and circus-like score is given new life. Optional English subtitles have been included and unsurprisingly they're excellent, well placed and timed.


Extras

"Blood of the Beasts" (22:05)
In 1949 Franju directed this documentary about the Paris slaughterhouses. He's taken quite an interesting approach but one that is manipulative. The film opens with some overly playful music as Paris life is looked at. Minutes later we're taken to our first slaughterhouse where we witness the killing and stripping of a horse. Call it lyrical if you like, many have said the film is a poetic piece but there's just too keen a sense to show its brutality. I didn't expect not to see it, this isn't a kid’s film but it does highlight the realities even if I may disagree with Franju's juxtaposition of happy go lucky folk and death. Franju films as if he were shooting a movie, many of the opening pieces and scene transitions serve more toward a storyline but in the end this is just a real blow to the senses. Is it art? Well you the viewer can decide, I suppose the techniques employed can be considered as such. But if art is seeing horses stabbed in the throat with the gushing of blood, cattle being happily slaughtered by ex-boxers with large egos and baby bulls having their throats sliced then some of you are braver to admit it as being such than I would be. Accompanying the piece is a short segment with Franju and his take on blood.

Dr. Genessier's Clinic
Entering here takes you to a collection of various featurettes:

"Le Fantastique" (5:28)
This is taken from a 1982 broadcast on France's popular Cine-Parade in which Georges Franju discusses fantastic cinema. Here he explains about what he feels makes true horror and reflects upon a time when he saw a scientific experiment in which a man sat still with a big smile on his face, while his brain was being poked at, meanwhile the audience was in shock. It was horrific he explains because the man felt nothing, but the audience received much more.

Boileau-Narcejac (7:08)
These are excerpts taken from a documentary called Les Grands-peres du crime which has crime authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac discuss their 34-year partnership (this was filmed in '84). They talk about what they feel makes a good crime novel and how they work together constructively as a team. As a side note the pair co-wrote Eyes without a Face.

Medical Charts
This gallery contains an assortment of rare behind-the-scenes photos and artwork used for the film. It's quite incredible seeing some of the set photos and various posters and lobby cards, more impressively Criterion managed to contact Edith Scob and get her permission to film at her house. She provided an original concept mask, black in colour for photos to be taken. It's only a shame that they couldn't have got an interview from her.

Theatrical Trailers
Here we have two trailers, one for the original French release (with English subtitles) and the other for a double bill which was shown in the U.S. The latter is for an English-dubbed release which was also edited and is ghastly entitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. This shows a fair few spoilers and features a rubbish narration which runs alongside shots for the equally badly titled The Manster - a horror about a normal American man who becomes bad and kills women in Japan and then he has the cops chasing after him and stuff.


Overall

We've waited so many years to see Eyes without a Face finally make it onto DVD. With that said the wait has been worth it. Criterion has once again done their name proud by providing a stunning transfer accompanied with its original audio components. The extras, although several of them brief are informative and "Blood of the Beasts" is disturbing to say the least. Eyes without a Face is an important piece of cinema and anyone wishing to trace the roots of horror and its evolvement should immediately add this to their list.
Details and Specifications
DVD Video Review

Region: 1

Certificate: Not Rated

Distributor:
Criterion

Running Time:
90 mins approx
Soundtracks:
French Mono

Subtitles:
English

Director:
Georges Franju

Main cast:
Pierre Brasseur
Edith Scob
Alida Valli
Francois Guerin
Alexandre Rignault
Beatrice Altariba
Juliette Mayniel
-- more --
Ratings
Film
9
Video
10
Audio
9
Extras
7
8
About Kevin Gilvear
Kev joined The Digital Fix team in 2004, specializing in Asian cinema and cult film and television. During that time he’s also worked on various features, including bringing exclusive interviews to the site. Today he divides his time between covering movies for The Movie Fix (where he watches far too many Japanese pink films) and writing about music, with a spot of photography, for The Music Fix.


More by this author...