With a few exceptions scattered throughout the past hundred years or so of feature filmmaking, the French never really embraced horror films. Instead, drawing from a literary tradition capped by the writing of Gaston Leroux and Victor Hugo, the French response to what we in the United States (and Britain, and Italy, and Japan, and…well, most of the world) define as horror was cinema fantastique. Certainly, it had elements of horror, sometimes more overt than others, but more traditionally recognizable characteristics of horror were mixed into a dreamy mist that also included romance, science fiction, mystery, and melodrama all spun with a disregard for logical narrative structure and progression in favor of a dreamlike (or nightmare) quality. It did not matter if one scene connected to the next, or if there was a rational explanation for a particular image or action. That was not the point. The language of cinema is vast, figured directors working within this nebulous genre of cinema fantastique, and the idea that film has to conform to a particular structure or style or storytelling — or that it need tell any story at all — is tragically limiting. Of the many films that make up the body of cinema fantastique, few have developed an enduring reputation, good and bad, quite like Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage, aka Eyes without a Face.

Franju was a man ahead of his time as much as he was a man out of the past, sort of a precursor to the fans and critics who founded the French cinema magazine Cahiers du Cinema and, beginning in the 1950s as an outgrowth of their efforts at the magazine, became the faces of la nouvelle vague — the French New Wave — when they started writing and directing films. In the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, and in the frames of their films, men like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette celebrated a new style of filmmaking and championed films and genres that serious film criticism had traditionally dismissed as inferior: gangster films, horror, fantasy, peplum, all those disreputable genres that quietly and without academic respect serve as the cauldron of experimentation and risk-taking from which almost all cinematic language eventually emerges. But before any of the Cahiers du Cinema crew had ever put fingers to typewriter key, before many of them had even been born, Georges Franju was fighting for the cause they would pick up in the 1950s and carry to great and lasting success.

Franju, like many early directors, held a series of jobs — including noodle-maker and soldier — before he fell into movie making by way of set design, including stints of stage production at Casino de Paris and the legendary Folles Bergère (one-time home of 1920s icon Josephine Baker). Franju’s appreciation for the young medium of feature film led him, along with his friend Henri Langlois, to start their own fanzine and found a cinema enthusiasts’ club called Le Cercle du Cinema, which met regularly to view and discuss a variety of silent films. Among Franju’s favorites were the psychotronic fantastique films of Louis Feuillade, particularly his serial thrillers Fantomas and Les Vampires. In 1936, Franju and Langlois founded the Cinématheque Française, today one of the largest archives of films and cinematic paraphernalia in the world. As was the case with the people behind Cahiers du Cinema, and as remains the case today, it wasn’t long before Franju’s passion led him from fandom to filmmaking. He began with controversial, politically charged documentaries tackling subjects such as the Nazi occupation of Paris to industrialization to veterans’ hospitals. In 1958 he made his first feature film, The Keepers (La Tête contre les murs, or Head Against the Wall), starring Anouk Aimée (who would go on to work with Federico Fellini in La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2). In 1960, Franju directed his second feature, Les yeux sans visage.

For a testament to Franju’s adoration of Feuillade’s sinister silent serials, one need look no further than Les yeux sans visage — though if one does, you’ll find his life-long effort to remake Fantomas and his actual remake of Feuillade’s Judex, which makes it pretty obvious, too. Despite being made in 1960, this is a film that would have been comfortable alongside the macabre greats of the silent cinema, a “silent film with sound” like Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr or even Franju’s 1960 contemporary, Et mourir de plaisir (Blood and Roses), a retelling of Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” directed by Roger Vadim (And God Created Woman, Barbarella). Both Blood and Roses and Eyes without a Face lean heavily on dreamy, haunting visuals to tell their story, more so than they do dialogue, and both films trade in the sort of imagery that was popular in the fantastique and horror films of the 1920s. In the case of Vadim’s film, the lesbianism contained in the story got him in trouble with censors. In the case of Franju’s film, it was one incredibly shocking and graphic scene that had censors calling for his head and audience members stumbling out of the theatre in nauseated disgust. Had William Castle been in charge, he would have issued novelty barf bags and had fake nurses waiting in the library to tend to patrons suffering from terror-induced heart attacks.

For producer Jules Borkon, everything about Les yeux sans visage screamed horror film. That’s why he bought the rights to the novel by Jean Redon upon which the film was to be based. Borkon was looking at the massive success being enjoyed by British studio Hammer with the release of their horror films The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959). All three of those films pushed the envelope in terms of the amount of sex and violence permitted on-screen. All three were decried by censors and lambasted by critics, who saw them as perverse, vulgar, and tasteless. Predictably, the public went wild for them, making overnight superstars of the films’ leads, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and turning Hammer from a fairly run-of-the-mill studio producing all genres of film into the fabled “House of Horror” it is still known as today. There having been no real French horror film, Borkon figured he was the man to bring the trend to the country. After all, if the uptight Brits could make a movie full of sex and violence, surely the more erudite and libertine French could do the same.

To direct, he hired Franju, and right away the first of Borkon’s problems emerged. Franju, a devoted pupil of the early fantastique masters, did not regard Les yeux sans visage as horror. Instead, he saw the story as a romantic tragedy, of anguish and despair. Although it had yet to emerge (this was, after all, only Franju’s second feature film, and the one that would do the bulk of defining his), Franju’s style would later be described by critic Claire Clouzot as “poignant fantastic realism,” drawing from both surrealism of a director like Jean Cocteau and the Expressionism of 1920s German horror cinema, but perhaps most in tune with the very similar approach to the fantastic in Feuillade’s serials. In retrospect, it’s obvious that Franju tackling horror would come out less like Hammer’s lurid, blood-soaked Horror of Dracula and more like early silent films — most notably, tragedies of disfigurement like 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera (both starring Lon Chaney), and perhaps most of all, 1928’s The Man Who Laughs, directed by Paul Leni and starring Conrad Veidt. As would prove to be the case with Les yeux sans visage, the “horror” of The Man Who Laughs stems not from grotesque scares and graveyard chills, but instead flows from the intense anxiety one feels regarding the fate of the main character.

Aside from a director with a dreamy vision of poetic anguish, Borkon had other problems. He had to navigate a minefield of international censorship. Borkon had to instruct Franju not to go overboard with the blood, not to depict the animal cruelty that appears in the book, and to seriously tone down the mad science elements. In addition, the film would be shot in black and white, rather than the eye-popping color employed by Hammer Studios. As Franju himself would lament in a later interview, “I was told, ‘No sacrilege because of the Spanish market, no nudes because of the Italian market, no blood because of the French market and no martyrized animals because of the English market.’ And I was supposed to be making a horror film!” In many ways, however, these restrictions played right into the type of film Franju wanted to make. Working with writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who previously collaborated on novels that became Henri-Georges Clouzot Les Diaboliques (1955) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Franju restructured the story of the novel, making it not about the mad scientist but about the daughter whose affliction has driven the scientist mad.

That daughter is Christiane, who for most of the film is played by Edith Scob obscured by an emotionless yet somehow piteous mask of her former face, suffering from a serious disfigurement and hidden away in her father’s estate. Her father, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), is obsessed with repairing his daughter’s affliction, a mania that leads him, Dr. Frankenstein style, to abandon morality in pursuit of his scientific goal. His macabre solution is to find a new face for Christiane, one cut from the skull of an unwilling donor he kidnaps with the help of his assistant Louise (Alida Valli), herself a former patient of the doctor. Unfortunately, grafting a new face onto someone is a difficult pursuit, and despite multiple experiments on dogs and a couple attempts on humans, every face graft is rejected, eventually showcasing the same necrotic decay. Plus, you can only go around tearing off faces for so long before the police start to catch on and close in.

For most of the film, Franju eschews the grisly details of what is happening and focuses on the creeping existential dread felt by Christiane, at times a willing participant in her father’s gruesome operations and at other times horrified by them. As she begins to comprehend the price being paid by others for her face, she becomes a confused, terrified bundle of eagerness and revulsion, consumed by the conflicting desire to lead a normal life and the self-loathing she feels not just at her appearance, but at the role she has played in the mutilations. Despite spending the movie behind a mask — much as Christopher Lee did in The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy — Edith Scob turns in a heartbreaking performance as the unwilling “monster,” most of her acting being done with her eyes and body language. The creepily disconnected and remote delivery of her lines when she comes face-to-face with the next unwilling participant in the face transplant experiments, a young shoplifter coerced by police into serving as bait for Génessier and Louise, also amplifies the creepiness of the situation, making Christiane into that most terrifying of horror archetypes: a child (or childlike) figure who seems to have lost the ability to tell right from wrong, cruelty from compassion. As did Conrad Veidt and Lon Chaney during the silent era so beloved by Franju, and as did Christopher Lee more recently in his turns as monsters in Hammer’s early horror films, Edith Scob transforms her character into one of heartbreaking tragedy. Even when she is complicit in her father’s heinous crimes, she remains a moving, damaged creature.

I said that, for most of the film, Franju dances around the grisly details. But I also said that, despite tiptoeing around the censors, the film sent them into fits of indignant fury and had audience members shrieking and heading for the doors. That is all thanks to one scene, a brief couple of seconds, really, during the film’s longest transplant scene. During this, Franju allows himself to indulge another trend from early 1900s French entertainment: the Grand-Guignol, a small Paris theater infamous for its increasingly perverse and gory stage plays. During the 1910s, and well into the post-war years, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol shocked, outraged, titillated, disgusted, and enthralled audience members with a blood-soaked procession of horrific productions. Although horror films might not have caught on in France, horror theater had a home on the splattered stage of the Grand-Guignol. By the time of Les yeux sans visage, the notorious Grand-Guignol was all but gone. It closed finally in 1962. If the surgery scene in Georges Franju’s movie is indeed an obeisance to that beloved, disreputable theater, it’s more than worthy. Franju allows his camera to linger just a little bit longer here and there, catching glimpsing of the horrifying process of cutting off a victim’s face. It’s made all the more nauseating by not lingering too long — just enough to rattle the viewer, to deliver a truly upsetting shock that, even after decades of far more explicit gore, retains its ability to unnerve. Even Hammer in all its blood-soaked glory could not match the repellent beauty of Les yeux sans visage‘s big shock.

So unnerving was that one scene that it came to define the film. Those who didn’t dismiss it as sick and perverse criticized it for being old-fashioned and stilted. When it was released in the United States, it wasn’t just the face graft that caused problems; that scene was cut entirely. But no one knew, in this age of Hammer Horror and American International Pictures’ Edgar Allan Poe films directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price (the first of these, The Fall of the House of Usher, was released in 1960 as well), what to do with a film that, with its most shocking scene excised, was basically a slow-moving, lyrical meditation on alienation, mental instability, and obsession with physical appearance. In classic exploitation form, the film’s American distributor retitled it The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and put it on a double bill with the controversial Japanese monster movie The Manster. Audiences were uninterested. It wasn’t until 2003 that the uncut, undubbed version finally found its way into an American release.

The face transplant wasn’t the only thing cut from the American print. Also gone were several scenes depicting Dr. Génessier’s saner, more tender side. Although without a doubt needing to account for his crimes, Génessier is not a black-and-white villain. He runs a clinic where he cares for wayward children. He is motivated past the point of sanity by his devotion to his daughter’s rehabilitation, and yet he cannot see that his obsession with her physical appearance, the transplanting of his own vanity onto his scarred daughter, his tendency to equate her emotional and spiritual well-being and her value as a human with the beauty of her face, has only pushed her into the same sort of amoral madness. But he is also a caring father and a dedicated professional — when he isn’t busy in his basement cutting off faces. Like Christiane, and like Frankenstein, he is a morally complex character who does not lend himself to easy and total condemnation, though in the end he absolutely must be condemned.

Despite the visceral horror of the surgery, the film’s most effective scene is its finale, which sees poor doomed Christiane going on a tear through her father’s underground lab as the police arrive to finally put an end to the madness. She sets loose the caged bird at which she has stared for so long, frees the woman who was to provide her next face and uncages the dogs on which her father experimented in an attempt to perfect his science. And then she wanders off, quietly, into the night. Rather than being cathartic, Christiane’s escape from the lab is more of a resigned sigh. There can be no happiness for her. There is no hope in her future, no resolution or salvation. Franju, as he has done for the entire film, shoots the scene with a quiet, haunting patience, imbuing the scene with an almost unbearable level of sadness.

Decades later, the film — like so many that were once dismissed as dreadful — enjoyed a reassessment of its merits, and while it is perhaps not heralded as a masterpiece of French cinema, it is still highly regarded. And rightfully so. It is a marvel of a film, at once so old-fashioned and so ahead of its time. The image of Christiane imprisoned behind an inhuman approximation of her human face is one of the great, iconic images of whatever genre into which you feel the need to place the film. Although Franju might not have thought of it as horror, he was receptive to having it placed in that genre that had created so many silent era masterpieces and served as the de facto home for so many more fantastique films that did not lend themselves to easy categorization. Like the Cahiers du Cinema generation that would follow in his footsteps, he wanted to show the artistry and potential of a genre sneered at by so many others. So if it is a horror film, my God what a beautiful piece of horror it is. By every measure, Les yeux sans visage is an incredible film. Impossible to forget, eerily poetic, possessed of a quiet horror that seeps into you from every direction without you noticing.

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