Eyes Without A Face (1960)
One of the most extraordinary horror films you will ever see, ‘Les Yeux Sans Visage’ boasts a five minute face transplant so graphic it induced faintings at its 1960 Edinurgh Festival premiere, yet it sends you back to reality not stricken with dread but as though jolted from the hex of a hallucinatory fairytale. The sight of Edith Scob floating about a Gothic mansion imprisoned in a cold featureless mask and couturier Givenchy gown is so wistfully haunting it strikes a tone rarely captured in cinema. I recall staggering out of the film (‘Eyes Without A Face’ in English money) almost speechless. Hammer Horror this eminently aint.
Scob plays Christiane, daughter of a deranged surgeon intent on repairing her disfigured face in the aftermath of a car crash he arrogantly caused. Alida Valli is the devoted housekeeper who lures young women back to their secluded pile so he can attempt to sew their faces onto his precious girl. The transplanted tissue is always rejected, though, and the flesh spoils through in the end. Pierre Brasseur’s Mephistophelean madman and his increasingly desperate attempts mean just more girls to be dumped in the shallows of the Seine.
Georges Franju may not have invented the mask movie but this long-overlooked slasher has nevertheless enjoyed a remarkable reach. From John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ to Almodovar’s ‘The Skin I Live In’ to John Woo’s ‘Face/ Off’ the debts to this obscure French film fantastique have repeatedly been chalked up. As a manifestation of what Sigmund Freud called ‘the uncanny’ the stilled face has unusual arresting power…strangely beautiful, eerily compelling, what we project onto it is so complex it is its own richly unsettling reward.