A night flight through a darkened wood opens Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) with a heightened pulse—a woman races down a deserted highway eyeing her rear-view mirror, fearful of the intent of cars approaching from behind but also keeping an eye on the passenger in the back seat. Soon the passenger, hidden in a too-big trench coat and hat, slumps forward, and the movie begins its steep descent into the interior of a twisted morality well worthy of being cloaked in a dark forest of secrets. A French-Italian coproduction released in Europe in 1960 (the same year Psycho was released) but not seen in the U.S. until two years later, Eyes Without a Face plays like a Grand Guignol fairy tale with imagery that, unlike the unforgiving slashes and sharp angles of Hitchcock’s landmark, seeps into the viewer’s subconscious with poetic assurance and smears the boundaries of our sympathies at the same time.
In an isolated mansion somewhere in that darkened wood a surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) familiar with past glories has instigated an escalating series of skin graft experiments in a desperate attempt to restore the face of his young daughter (Edith Scob), horribly disfigured in a car accident. The surgeon kidnaps young Parisian girls to use as unwilling epidermal donors with the help of his devoted assistant (Alida Valli), a former patient whose own successful facial reconstruction has blinded her to her savior’s madness. Given the elusive, seductive strangeness of the movie’s surrealist mise-en-scène, 21st-century viewers might be surprised at the film’s notorious centerpiece, a shockingly clinical surgical scene in which Franju’s camera barely glances away from the horrific procedure being performed, and then only to scan the landscape of moral conflict glistening like cold sweat across the faces of the doctor and his helper. But perhaps even more unsettling and ultimately frightening is the degree to which Franju allows us access not only to sympathy for the victims, but also for the daughter, whose dawning realization of what her father is doing might be as devastating as her own disfigurement, and even for the surgeon and his assistant, their genial manner and misguided, sincere love for the girl incapable of coexisting with their heinous deeds.
The movie is a masterpiece of raised goose flesh. Even during the film’s most ostensibly placid moments Franju burrows under our skin with image and sound— over unadorned tracking shots of the girl moving aimlessly through the empty halls of the house a faint, insistent, inexplicable barking can be heard, soon revealed as coming from the basement of the house, where the doctor’s very first victims are still penned. If Eyes Without a Face ends on a note of release best suited for a fairy tale it is a grim tale indeed, tainted by blood, destroyed loyalties and the prospect of a bleak future of isolation, as if a masked, faceless sleeping beauty had escaped the evil queen and made her way into the woods to find only suffocating darkness where magic should reside.
(Eyes Without a Face screens Saturday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. at the Lloyd Rigler Auditorium at the Egyptian Theater as one of AFI Fest 2011 Artistic Director Pedro Almodovar's personal selections for the general program. Almodovar has cited Franju's film as one that has influenced his career and in particular his new film The Skin I Live In. Information on the entirety of offerings at this year's AFI Fest, as well as information on how to obtain free tickets to screenings throughout the festival run, can be found by clicking here.)