At the very end of last year’s critical/cinephile favorite Holy Motors, there’s an inexplicable moment (within the context of the narrative, though the whole movie is pretty inexplicable) in which Edith Scob, playing the limo driver who’s been conveying Denis Lavant from one bizarre “appointment” to another, dons a blank-faced, alabaster mask and tells someone she’s coming home. That creepy mask pays homage to Scob’s role, over half a century earlier, in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face,a singularly disturbing horror film that inspired everything from Michael Myers’ featureless mug in the Halloween series to Billy Idol’s hit single of the same name (in which backup vocals whisper the film’s original French title, Les Yeux Sans Visage). Unlike many genre efforts of decades past, this one has lost none of its potency over the years, mostly because it isn’t scary as much as it is unnerving. Its horror involves not the usual booga-booga, but the lengths to which desperate yet coldly rational people will go to achieve a grotesque goal.
Opening with nightmarish images of trees in darkness as shot from a moving car, accompanied by jaunty carnival music, Eyes Without A Face wastes no time in establishing life’s cheapness, as the car’s driver (Alida Valli) pulls over and dumps a body into the river. Once recovered, the body is identified by eminent surgeon Pierre Brasseur as his missing daughter, who had been badly disfigured in an auto accident some time before. It quickly emerges, however, that the daughter (Scob) is still alive, stalking the halls of her father’s vast estate in her form-fitting mask like a sad mannequin, and that Valli has been procuring young women for the doctor, who hopes to perform a face transplant that will make his daughter look normal again. That the procedure will cost other women their own faces and/or their lives is no concern of his, and his callous indifference echoes throughout the grounds in the form of nonstop barking from the dogs he keeps cruelly locked up for his experiments.
This last element, which plays a role in the finale, harks back to the ’30s classic Island Of Lost Souls, another horror movie (adapted, like this one, from a novel) about a mad scientist and his surgical crimes. But Eyes Without A Face has a more clinical, dispassionate tone, which is precisely what makes it so discomfiting. Its central setpiece depicts Brasseur removing a victim’s face in what feels like real time; the scene is shot in almost complete silence (Maurice Jarre, who composed the film’s superb score, wisely takes a breather), with more attention to realistic detail than viewers with weak stomachs might prefer. Anyone thinking it couldn’t be all that grisly in a film from 1959, think again. Yet what makes the sequence hard to watch isn’t so much the incisions as the absence of empathy. Franju shoots it as Brasseur might, as if it were a documentary about plastic surgery rather than an act of mutilation that might cross the line into murder.
That said, the film does have a conscience, and Scob, who resembles a fallen angel in her mask and robe, is its doleful moral center. As every actor who’s ever played Batman knows well, it’s nearly impossible to give a real performance when your eyes, peering through little holes, are your only visible facial feature. Nonetheless, Scob somehow manages to convey a palpable sense of sorrow, mostly via her slow, heavy movements (which contrast sharply with her birdlike frame). Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade heightens the contrast of Eugen Schüfftan’s cinematography—one of the later films in a career reaching all the way back to Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen and Metropolis—but if those deep blacks and searing whites represent Brasseur and Valli’s misdeeds on the one hand, and their innocent victims on the other, it’s Scob who provides the necessary shades of grey. Only in the final moments do her intentions become clear, and by then, in the grand tradition of the horror genre, it’s far too late.