Review: Eyes Without a Face

It’s a landmark genre film for the simple fact that it shows just how scary something as simple as a mask can be.

Eyes Without a Face
Photo: Lopert Pictures

The kind of horror film that’s commonly referred to as “poetic,” but which could just as easily be described as “slow,” Eyes Without a Face is a landmark genre film for the simple fact that it shows just how scary something as simple as a mask can be. As spare and clean as modern horror films are baroque and Grand Guignol, Eyes Without a Face is about a genius but somewhat crazed (is there any other kind?) doctor, Génessier (Pierre Brassuer), with a predilection for performing living tissue transplants and whose daughter has just died in a car accident, leaving him to knock around his giant estate outside Paris with his faithful assistant, Louise (Alida Valli). Except the doctor’s daughter, Christiane (Édith Scob), isn’t dead—her face horribly disfigured, she stays alone in her room (sans mirrors) wearing a simple white mask while the doctor works to fix her face. The problem with his technique is that it requires new tissue, and so a number of young Parisian women have been disappearing of late, led to their dooms by Louise, whose own face had been perfectly restored by the doctor and who follows him now like an obedient, albeit homicidal, puppy. Director Franju brings to this grim story—by Diabolique and Vertigo authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac—a wry humor at times, helped along by Maurice Jarre’s wonderfully bouncy and off-kilter score. But the tone here is mostly a quiet creep of alienation, as Christiane, possibly driven insane by her trauma, wanders about in her blank mask (made all the more jarring by how closely it mirrors her face) and comes to grips with her quite understandable dilemma over her father’s methods. Although Eyes Without a Face has its admirably light surreal touches, and knows how to hold its shocks for the right moments, that can’t overcome the slightness of the story, and the film’s over-reliance on its central image of the masked Christiane (which, it must be said, is sure to linger in your mind’s eye for days afterward). It’s not a masterpiece but it certainly isn’t forgettable.

 Cast: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Édith Scob, François Guérin, Alexandre Rignault, Béatrice Altariba, Juliette Mayniel, Charles Blavette, Claude Brasseur, Michel Etcheverry, Yvette Etiévant, René Génin, Lucien Hubert, Marcel Pérès  Director: Georges Franju  Screenwriter: Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac  Distributor: Lopert Pictures  Running Time: 90 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1960  Buy: Video

Chris Barsanti

Chris Barsanti has written for the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and Online Film Critics Society.

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