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Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans visage): The Criterion Collection

"It's an anguish film," said director Georges Franju, who resisted labeling his Eyes Without a Face, in which we watch a young woman's face peeled off her head like skin from a pudding, as a horror film. "It's a quieter mood than horror, something more subjacent, more internal, more penetrating. It's horror in homeopathic doses." Quieter. More internal. True enough. Still, in Cahiers du Cinéma he told François Truffaut that when audiences at the Edinburgh Film Festival viewed Eyes Without a Face, seven people fainted. Franju's 1959 exercise in style balances Hitchcockian Psychodrama with distinctly European poetic flourishes reminiscent of Jean Cocteau, whom Franju admired. In Eyes Without a Face Franju infused a pulpy thriller plot with the baroque visual dreaminess of Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. This effective crossbreeding also runs through the screenplay by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, crime novelists who had already given us Hitchcock's Vertigo and Clouzot's Diabolique. Their script, derived from a novel by Jean Redon, blends the police procedural with the grimmest of fairy tales. The result is a horror movie for the art-house circuit. In its sedate, measured virtuosity, eloquently haunting imagery abuts the queasily naturalistic. It's both beautiful and grisly, lyric and sinister.

Renowned Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is desperate to rebuild his once-beautiful daughter's face, which was destroyed in an automobile accident he blames himself for. So his loyal assistant, Louise (Alida Valli, The Third Man), secures young Parisian women for his experimental surgeries. Génessier is trying to give his daughter, Christiane (ethereal Edith Scob), a new face by carving off the faces of his victims and grafting them onto Christiane's. But the technique works only temporarily, so new victims are always needed. Like a phantom, Christiane wanders the mansion wearing a smooth white mask. Except for her eyes peering out, the mask is as blank and immobile as a porcelain doll's face. She pines to be released from her imprisonment within the desolate family mansion deep in a forest. Her father has made sure that the world, including Christiane's fiancé, believes that she is dead.

Meanwhile, the fiancé and the local police try to connect the dots as the bodies of mutilated women — all sharing a particular physical beauty — keep turning up. They plant a would-be victim (Béatrice Altariba) whose third-act ticking clock turns the doctor's scalpel into Poe's swinging pendulum. The film's take-away shot arrives after we follow Edna (Juliette Mayniel) from her first meeting with Louise to her moments under Génessier's knife. Franju frames the surgery with documentary dispassion as Génessier meticulously pencil-outlines her flesh, then slices into it. When Edna's still-living face is pulled off her skull whole, the image is branded into our forebrain. As for Christiane, she achieves a type of freedom, but only after her mind finally breaks. Like an avenging angel in white, she metes out appropriate punishments, one involving her father's always-baying hounds kept kenneled in the basement as test subjects. Then, chucking her mask, she all but floats into the nocturnal woods, a ghostly Ophelia.

The basic B-movie elements are secondary to Franju's chilly atmospherics, which lift a story that can be only a melancholy one. (If Christiane gets her beauty back, an innocent girl must remain mutilated.) That bleak hopelessness scrapes against the unnerving composure with which Génessier and Louise collect and skin their donors. The doctor is no cackling mad scientist. Cool and methodical, his one regard is for his daughter, the other women being only so much source material. He is every authority figure so convinced of his rightness that moral considerations are less than irrelevant. Louise, a prior success for Génessier, dumps bodies into the river with the devotion of a servant cleaning up after dinner. However, in her glossy rain slicker and scar-covering pearl necklace she's no generic Ygor, and we're given reason to wonder if she is Christiane's "dead" mother.

The black-and-white cinematography by Eugen Schüfftan is a collage of noirish shadows and leafless trees and expressive angles. Maurice Jarre's musical score ups our unease by accompanying Louise's nighttime duties with a jaunty waltz evoking some dark carnival, while Christiane's gentle motif conveys a delicate grace and perhaps tells us about the former girl who has lost more than just her face. Christiane is so like an extreme twist on Laura in The Glass Menagerie that the American trailer for the film's exploitative recut sported the loopy voice-over, "suggests Tennessee Williams in one of his more abnormal moods." In her mask's neutral non-expression we read anything we imagine going on behind it and her mangled features.

John Woo's 1997 Face/Off owes an obvious debt to Eyes Without a Face, right down to that Woo signature image, doves. Birds were Franju's recurring symbols of impossible freedom, and Christiane's ultimate release also frees her father's caged doves, which accompany her languid escape from her anguish.

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Criterion's Eyes Without a Face DVD offers a clean, uncut print and flawless anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) that preserve Schüfftan's shades and tones with excellent contrast and clarity. The original French soundtrack is a clean and robust (even for Criterion) DD 1.0, with optional English subtitles so well produced it's easy to forget you're reading them.

The chief extra is Franju's 1949 documentary on slaughterhouses, Blood of the Beasts (22 min.), which shows his disarming visual beauty already in force. (Blood comes with the option of an English-language soundtrack.) Then in a French TV interview (2 min.) the director discusses Blood and his film techniques. In a second TV interview (5 min.) Franju gives a serious discussion of his work to a fright-wigged horror-show host on a silly, yet colorful, "mad scientist" lab set.

Less egregiously, the writing team of Boileau and Narcejac are interviewed as part of a French mystery documentary (7 min.). We also get a fine gallery of production photos and international promo art. Two trailers are here: the original French trailer in all its abstract obliqueness, and the trashy 1962 American trailer promoting the version of Eyes that was recut, redubbed, and retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.

A fold-out insert provides good essays by novelist Patrick McGrath and film historian David Kalat, our favorite commentator from the Mabuse discs released by Image and Criterion. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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