Eyes Without a Face is an unconventional horror film. I almost wouldn’t even want to categorize it as horror to be honest. Rather than relying on traditional horror film staples such as gore, blood and jump scares, Les Yeux Sans Visage instead prefers to focus on creating an unrelenting ghostly mood where the horror comes from the unreal and bizarre occurrences of theft of faces and the subsequent murders. It’s really more of a morbid, fantastical drama with certain hint of surrealism and fright mixed in, a winning combination that through the years has inspired numerous great films, the most recent example being the magnificent 2011 film The Skin I Live In by Pedro Almodóvar.
The very opening of the film made me instantly fall in love with the picture. The macabre music that you hear from the very start of the opening credits builds this incredibly haunting atmosphere and the feeling only intensifies and elevates to new scary heights as the credits end and the screen starts to focus on the disturbed female driver of a car that is piercing through the night at a desolate country road. It’s a mesmerizing image that beautifully creates a lingering spooky mood that covers the entire film. The opening in many ways reminds me of the car sequence in Psycho the way it effortlessly captivates you in the moment and immediately has you in its clutches. The entire scene is so intense and thrilling, and that’s before you realize that the car is transporting a dead body and the driver is afraid she might be caught.
It’s strange from a modern perspective to realize just how controversial the film was in its initial release. It amongst other things was critically panned and actually caused several people faint during a showing at the Edinburgh film festival. For someone who is accustomed to seeing much more violent and gory modern movies it could at first be a bit hard to see how something like the film in question could have ever been perceived as objectionable if not outright disgusting. Beyond the seedy plot about Doctor Génessier kidnapping and killing beautiful girls for their skin while attempting to restore the face of his daughter, the formerly beautiful Christiane, there isn’t much in terms of controversial or even shocking material to be found. But upon closer reflection you start to realize how, for example, the magnificent scene depicting the surgery that removes the face from one of the kidnapped women could very well be too much for sensitive audiences in 1960. The imagery is very striking even today and with the limited opportunity that the general public in 1960 would have had to ever witness a surgery scene at close proximity, seeing such a ghastly scene on the movie screen could easily shock most people.
Speaking of Christiane, her iconic featureless mask that hides her damaged face is absolutely captivating. It lends a terrifying nymph like quality to her entire presence as a character and makes the movie as a whole be so much more dream like. It’s difficul to explain just why something so simple as making the mask appear stiff and very featureless works so damn well to create such a powerful impact and feeling of ghostly dread, but it does. She feels almost otherworldly in every scene she appears, something that only gets magnified by the terrific, and quite surprising ending of the film.
The climax of the story really is superb in how it subverts all your expectations and manages to take you by genuine surprise. As the ending grows near the story has you expecting that the police, who have been circling the good doctor and created a trap to lure him in, would play a significant part in delivering him to justice, but no. They don’t actually amount to much of anything beyond fooliishly delivering the doctor his final victim, who was being used as bait. It’s actually a bit funny how incompetent the police are depicted here. They basically just stop looking for her and go home when she vanishes from the hospital where she was meant to capture Doctor Génessier’s attention and then somehow provoke him to attack her. The cops had no real plans as to how to monitor the girl and keep her safe were something to happen, it’s a bit ludicrous. Anyway, the big twist here is that rather than a heroic policeman saving the day, we actually see the disfigured daughter Christiane turning against her father. After releasing the kidnapped girl from captivity she first murders her father’s assistant by stabbing her on screen to the throat and then orchestrates her father to be mauled to death by releasing the pack of hounds that he had been experimenting on for some karmic justice. And just before the closing credits, the film turns completely spectral, as the very final moments of the film depict Christiane walking in the yard, like a phantom, almost as if she was being swallowed by the darkness. It’s absolutely gorgeous way to finish the story.