I walked into Eyes Without a Face with high expectations. Maybe it was the the badass title? Maybe it was the compelling premise? Maybe it was a half remembered quote from a commentary, interview, or a review somewhere where someone said something like “I thought I had seen everything the horror genre had to offer, and then I saw Eyes Without a Face.”? It was probably a mix of all these things. In the end none of that mattered because Eyes Without a Face, like this forgotten recommendation, wasn’t very memorable. Ok, that was deliberately inflammatory and I apologize for my theatrics. I do remember quite a lot about Eyes Without a Face, and while it grabbed me it wasn’t in the way I expected.
Here’s the premise, a wealthy doctor’s developed a seamless transplant procedure in an attempt to restore his daughter’s face which was badly maimed in an automobile accident he caused. The hitch is there’s a shortage of beautiful willing donors. To solve his supply problem, the doctor kidnaps beautiful teenagers and taking them back to a homemade operating room in the wine cellar under his mansion. There he cuts off their faces and grafts them onto his daughter. Each time the procedure seems to work work, until the host rejects the transplant and the graft begins to necrose. The unsightly transfer sloughs away until the poor girl must once again don a featureless porcelain mask to hide her grisly visage. Pretty cool right?
I won’t spoil the rest of the film because maybe you’re interested, I know I was, and maybe you want to see how it stands for yourself. Godspeed. I trust the Criterion Collection enough to believe they wouldn’t include a film in their prestigious closet unless it was of the utmost quality (yes I am aware of Armageddon‘s inclusion but I genuinely like that movie so… shut up). Suffice to say the storytelling in Eyes Without a Face didn’t blow me away. Yes, it has pretty gnarly practical effects. Yes, its art direction is a triumph of minimalist fantastique. Yes, as I’ll cover in the following paragraphs, it is a deeply poignant examination of the human condition. Unfortunately, when compared to les Diabolique or le Belle et la Bête it’s also… a bit of a yawner.
To some degree I understand that Georges Franju was fascinated by the mundane horrors society hides from itself. His documentary Blood of the Beasts is included in the special features on the Eyes Without a Face Criterion Collection Blu-ray but I couldn’t steel myself to watch it. I was misfortunate enough to unknowingly see a clip from the documentary in another special feature about Fanju where a horse is slaughtered in a brutally routine manner. Skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read a description of the scene: Behind a warehouse on cobblestone streets in an industrial district of Paris, a horse is led to a man who uses a long curved blade to cut the horse’s throat. A pressurized spray of blood jets out of the animals neck as it recoils and stamps its hooves futilely on the street. Blood pours from its neck as the horse stumbles and struggles against its own mortality until its knees buckle and it collapses before its body is drug into the warehouse to be butchered. That was 30 seconds of film.
Forgive me if I’m wrong and feel free to correct me in the comments but it is my impression that French New Wave filmmakers obsessed over these aspects of reality. Romanticizing the ugly realness of our lives and exaggerating its colorful vitality as well. It seems to me that Franju brought to Eyes Without a Face an understanding of the very real necessity to disconnect from the brutality of your work in order to be effective as a butcher or a surgeon. In this way the doctor sees the women he’s killing as raw materials necessary to save his daughter and shows no remorse or hesitation in the acquisition of those materials. Would you cry buying lumber to build a new deck because several trees died to make the planks? The doctor simply applies a similar logic.
I am deeply impressed by Eyes Without a Face in this respect. Art should expose its audience to the collective denial we hide from with our Happy Meals, free pornography, and next-day-shipping. Franju seemed to gravitate towards the truth that humans are selfishly rationalizing creatures who’ll dismiss morality and decency to achieve their goals if they’re desperate enough… or its easy enough. Does that make the doctor a villain? Does the ending make his daughter a hero? Maybe the truth is cloudy, maybe morality has no place in truth? Is science moral? Are we monsters in our carrot’s nightmares? I don’t know. I don’t know if Georges Franju knows, but he asks. And in so doing he’s done more than most ever will.