Eyes Without a Face

Georges Franju's lurid yet understated horror classic about face transplantation.



"I love images that make me dream, but I don't like someone dreaming for me" French director Georges Franju says in an interview featured on the new Criterion DVD release of his 1960 film Eyes Without a Face. True to his word, Franju's Eyes Without a Face is a classic of understated horror, a lurid, lucid nightmare of diabolic elegance.


The premise of the film seems fit for Vincent Price. An experimental surgeon, guilt-ridden over his role in his daughter's disfiguring car accident, is kidnapping young women with the aid of his surgically altered wife and transplanting their faces onto his daughter. But these "heterografts" aren't working, and each new kidnapping brings the doctor's scheme ever closer to discovery.


Classic B-film material, but Eyes Without a Face has the pedigree to match its Criterion treatment. The story was adapted from a Jean Redon novel by Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau, whose writing collaborations before 1960 already included Diabolique and Vertigo. As for Franju, he was co-founder with Henri Langlois of the Cinematheque Francaise, the renowned film library that would inspire such filmmaking greats as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.


Eyes Without a Face was thus bound to be more than just a genre film. Indeed, it's regarded as one of the more influential albeit lesser-known horror pictures of its time. Its story is slight (the film lasts just 88 minutes), but that only accentuates the delicacy of Franju's touch.


Maurice Jarre's score is the film's sole admission of its own ridiculousness, the goofy, carnivalesque music a jarring contrast to the poeticism of Franju's images. When Christiane, the surgeon's daughter, appears wearing a mask, her waifish beauty adds an undercurrent of sorrow to the perversity. Later, the camera broods over a portrait of the angelic Christiane holding a dove.


Franju's symbolic use of animals acquires deeper significance upon viewing Blood of the Beasts, his seminal 1949 documentary included as a DVD extra. Franju's graphic depiction of horses, cows, and sheep being killed in French slaughterhouses was a first shot in the war against animal cruelty.


Today, Eyes feels like a thinly veiled lamentation of Nazi brutality, though Franju is too refined for polemics. In Blood of the Beasts, he allowed the images to speak for themselves. Similarly, Eyes Without a Face concludes with doves and dogs escaping from an underground bunker, the chamber of horrors transformed into a symbol of mankind's divided subconscious. The ending is predictable, yet ethereal. The atrocities of WWII and the clichés of horror have become art. Which is to say, dream.


--Joshua Avram

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