FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - Eyes Without A Face

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

The film is the second of the month to feature the enormously successful writing partnership, Boileau-Narcejac, on whose story Les Diaboliques was based. Here, they worked alongside Georges Franju and Claude Sautet to adapt Jean Redon's novel of the same name. Eyes Without A Face shares several similarities with Les Diaboliques in the way the characters function within the narrative, often occupying the dual roles of heroine/victim or hero/villain. The lines blur between them as morality is impacted by emotion or ambition without ever losing the humanity at the heart of it.

Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is a plastic surgeon at the top of his field and with a successful clinic to show for it, but he is haunted by the car accident that horribly disfigured his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob). She must now wear a mask that hides her deformity and acts as a flawless reminder of how she used to look prior to the accident, but it allows no expression beyond her eyes, her solely visible and undamaged facial feature. Obsessed with righting that wrong and restoring her face, Génessier begins secret surgical experiments in his chateau, aided by his assistant Louise (Alida Valli). She finds girls of the right physical appearance and skin tone to match Christiane and lures them back to Génessier, where he takes their face and grafts it on to Christiane.

Christiane haunts the film in her mask, Scob's slight frame drifting through the chateau in over-sized gowns that emphasise her doll-like appearance. The mask itself is both beautiful and unnerving in its inability to convey Christiane's expressions, giving it a strangeness that is both human and inanimate. Scob offers the most emotional performance of the three main characters, shining through the mask that could have proven restrictive, but only serves to emphasise her frustration and fragility.  

That may be the only literal mask in the film, but metaphorical ones abound, particularly when it comes to the enigmatic Louise. Valli cuts a distinguished and authoritative figure when out on the streets of Paris finding her next victim, before transforming into something much more approachable and maternal when it comes to luring them in. In her interactions with Génessier though, she is humble and subservient, forever indebted to him for his work in restoring her own face, but still uneasy with the tasks she is forced to carry out. 

Franju refuses to moralise, presenting a character's motivations alongside their actions without attempting to justify or condemn either one. The film also doesn't intend to operate on any level that is outright scary. Instead, Franju opts for something akin to a cold winter chill rather than any sudden autumnal storms, playing out a family tragedy that also happens to feature a particularly graphic but coldly presented surgery scene. It's a meditative and melancholic film, determined to render the familiar strange and vice versa.  

The score is an essential aspect to the film's ongoing relationship with the strange and Maurice Jarre's music renders sounds of supposed jollity into something considerably more sinister. The jaunty waltz, the motif used to accompany Louise's movements throughout the film, is at once both comic and jarring, played on a barrel organ. It's the kind of music that should be heard at fairs or carnivals, but is instead scoring the deposit of a dead body in the river or stalking a new potential victim. Likewise, Christiane's music, 'Theme Romantique', is a ballet-like refrain, a lyrical dance that works nicely into the film's fairytale-like quality as well as emphasising Christiane's ethereal existence throughout. 

Eyes Without A Face is a completely absorbing piece of work, a haunting melancholic fairytale that has been massively influential since its appearance in 1960. It has also recently been restored by the BFI and re-released on Blu-Ray; with extensive special features and accompanying booklet, I heartily recommend it for film enthusiasts. 

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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