Eyes Without a Face

Queen's Film Theatre screen a masterpiece of the horror genre by French director Georges Franju

After an informative introduction by broadcaster and critic, Mike Catto, the screen in Queen's Film Theatre crackles to life. A spine-tingling waltz accompanies footage of a distressed yet young woman driving along a riverbank in the dead of night.

She checks her rear-view mirror, and we catch a glimpse of somebody in the back seat of the car, wearing an ill-fitting overcoat, hat slumped at an uncomfortable angle. As the credits draw to a close, we realise that this is, in fact, a corpse and the young woman in question, Valli, plans on disposing of the carcass by dumping it in the Seine.

For those unfamiliar with Georges Franju's 1960 French film, Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face), this short introduction marks it out as an innovative take on the emerging horror genre. When it was first released, it was clearly ahead of it's time.

The score of the film was composed by Maurice Jarre, best known for his collaborations with English director, David Lean on epics such as Lawrence of Arabia; and his haunting keys and woodwind prevalent in of the opening piece are gently paced, precise and soothing, the very antithesis of Bernard Hermann's screeching violins from Psycho (released the same year).

Franju's intentions are clear: using sound as well as visuals he intended to subvert the notion of what a horror film could be, and to create not just a scary movie, but a beautiful one. The need to innovate was partially imposed on Franju by the studios, who were afraid that audiences would not turn out to watch the film. After all, the plot of Les Yeux Sans Visage is extremely dark and disturbing.

In short a surgeon, Dr Génessier, is attempting to reconstruct his daughter's horrifically disfigured face through his groundbreaking technique of 'heterograft surgery'. This involves removing the facial tissue from another still-living person, the flaw in the process being that the other person dies in the process.

Thus begins a series of murders, as Génessier, with the help of his assistant and one-time patient Valli, attempts to successfully graft another face onto that of his daughter, Christiane. All the while Christiane is wracked with guilt and digust at herself, frequently begging Vialli to take her life.

Due to the visceral nature of the plot, Franju was given a very strict set of guidelines to work within. However, rather than letting this curtail his creativity, he found a freedom within those limits, deciding to create less of a horror film and more of a poetic feast for the senses.

That is not to say that the final edit is not scary; Les Yeux Sans Visage contains one particularly affecting scene involving surgery that makes for compelling yet uncomfortable viewing to this day. But Franju builds the tension in other ways, then releases it, giving us glimpses of something horrible before snatching it away. A sense of forboding runs throughout the entire film.

Aesthetically the picture is stunning, photographed in high contrast black and white by the legendary cinematographer, Eugen Schüfftan. An endlessly inventive artist, Schüfftan is best known for his work on Fritz Lang's Metropolis, during which he developed a pre-bluescreen process for inserting actors into miniature sets.

His noir sensibilities translate well to Les Yeux Sans Visage, lighting playing a key role in the film. The high contrast look works excellently, adding a sense of surgical precision to every frame. It also helps to highlight a recurring motif: the appearance of black leather gloves. This motif would be adopted by Italian horror directors such as Mario Bava during the subsequent decade, becoming a key tenant of the giallo genre.

A French/Italian production itself, Les Yeux Sans Visage is a forerunner to 1970s gialli, which would go on to inspire the Hollywood slasher movies of the 1980s. Whilst modern horror films may seem far removed from Franju's masterpiece, however, the cinematic evolutionary chain is obvious.

On a simply aesthetic level, the mask (whilst worn here by the 'victim' rather than the killer) is often compared to the pale, emotionless mask of Michael Myers in John Carpenter's Halloween, for instance. However, Franju's intentions could be compared to another modern director, Wes Craven, who attempted to subvert slasher movie clichés with his movie Scream.

Whilst it could be argued that their ultimate goal is similar, however, it is notable that Les Yeux Sans Visage is a much cleverer, scarier film. Furthermore it not only plays with the notion of what a horror film is, but has influenced in some way every film within the genre that followed. Another classic the QFT should be applauded for screening.