Time for a few foreign scares …
Or, the film I knew nothing about except the title.
If you’ve read any of my other musings here on The Movie Isle you’ll have probably picked up that I do enjoy watching films in languages other than English. And so it seemed about the right time to add a French language movie to the Marie vs Horror series.
Les yeux sans visage (Eyes without a Face) is a 1960 film directed by Georges Franju and although it’s listed everywhere as a horror film, I’m not quite sure it belongs entirely in that genre. Which, given my general aversion to horror movies, is not a bad thing at all. It was only after watching it that I discovered that Franju himself described it as a story of anguish rather than a horror story and I would have to agree with him.
Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is a surgeon who has caused an accident leaving his daughter’s face scarred, and he will stop at nothing to find a way to put right his transgression. He is assisted by Louise (Alida Valli) who is in charge of ‘materials procurement’ as well as being his surgical assistant. The daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) is clearly suffering not only physically from her disfigurement, but also emotionally – kept in the family home, with no mirrors, she declares early on that she wishes she were either blind, so that she could not see her scars, or dead so that it would all be over.
One of the first things to point out is that Les yeux sans visage is in black & white. I hadn’t realised this going in, although I perhaps should have. But 1960 was that period where some films were made in colour, others not, and I had never seen any clips or trailers. Black & white films for me always add an extra dimension of contrast to the visual. There are night scenes lit by car headlights and windowless interiors illuminated by stark, unshaded lightbulbs where shadows play. Then there are bright, white-walled, beautifully decorated rooms where the world at first seems to be ‘normal’, where fear and loss are temporarily absent and hope may be present. It’s no surprise then that Christiane wears beautiful, light coloured floaty gowns throughout, designed by Hubert de Givenchy.
In fact, because this is 1960s Paris, with its fashionable young people tripping along the streets of the French capital, I’d say this is probably the most chic and exquisitely dressed horror film I’ve ever seen. And even (or perhaps particularly with) the mask on, Edith Scob is like a delicate porcelain doll, a ballet dancer descending the stairs and making her horrific discoveries so gracefully in direct contrast to what is actually happening around her.
The opening credits give us a flavour of the music, which is used as leitmotiv rather than emotional manipulation – something else which I appreciate in horror films. There are two main themes; a gentle, even sad refrain which accompanies Christiane, and a carnival style tune (reminiscent of The Third Man) which we hear when Louise is present, and which becomes increasingly manic – though not over-the-top.
There are a number of points when it feels as though we’re going to get a big shock reveal of Christiane’s disfigurement, but this is cleverly held back for quite a while into the film until we are more than ready. When it comes it’s actually slightly disappointing, as the image is fuzzy and therefore loses something of the shock value – I’m assuming this is due to the level of special effects available at the time having to be hidden in a haze of medication.
In fact the ‘horror’, such as it is, comes from the gruesomeness of the surgical scene half way through. By 1960s standards it is horrific and even in 2018 forced me to look away …
But the overall feeling I came away with was sadness and loss – the images of freedom at the end may be a little on the nose, but they serve to underline how much both the father and the daughter have endured as a result of the accident and his wish to make amends.
Now that I’ve seen Les yeux sans visage, it’s clear that there is so much Pedro Almodóvar has borrowed for his 2011 film The Skin I Live In, which completely passed me by at the time.
Les yeux sans visage is definitely a classic and a little bit special in a not-quite-horror kind of way.