Georges Franju's atmospheric masterpiece is a tapestry of contradictions. Eyes Without a Face is a compelling tale of sadism that has an astute tenderness at the same time. A film that will disgust you with it's macabre imagery, yet simultaneously mesmerise you with it's beauty; a seething tale of love, fashioned by extreme guilt. Through the Gothic confines of a grandiose mansion, Franju has taken ideas from classic stories such as 'Frankenstein' and constructed a dream like surrealistic fantasy that has inspired legions of filmmakers since: from obvious inspirations like Jess Franco's The Awful Dr Orlof, all the way to the full blown Hollywood action fest, Face/Off; Eyes Without a Face stands out as one of cinema's most important, yet most overlooked films. The central story is a deliriously simple tale of vanity, guilt and redemption; yet one that is lent a great depth from it's cast of central characters. Doctor Génessier, guilt ridden over a car accident that left his beloved daughter, Christiane, with a destroyed face uses his assistant to kidnap young girls in an attempt to reconstruct her ruined features. The good doctor peels the faces from his victims and grafts them over the ruined features of his young daughter. However, the experiments are a continual failure but, motivated by a strong sense of guilt, Doctor Génessier must keep trying.
The doctor himself is a masterpiece of horror film villainy. Unlike many mad scientists since, the doctor here is firmly placed within reality which makes his motivations easy to believe and therefore the horror all the more fascinating. He is supported by his assistant, Louise; a fellow web of intrigue. Louise isn't the normal mad doctor's assistant; she isn't deformed, or demented but rather a cunning, malevolent and cerebral predator; gathering her victims to aid the doctor's latest experiment. The real masterpiece of characterisation, however, comes from the central character; the disfigured tragedy herself, Christiane. The scenes that see her float around in her mask gown are some of the most memorable ever brought to the screen. While wearing her mask, Christiane represents both life and death. The mask itself is stagnant and lifeless, but the eyes beneath the mask are full of life's beauty, giving the young girl a surrealistic look that epitomises the film in that it's hard to place; is it beautiful, or revolting; good or evil?
This film is a rare treat in that it's actually frightening. Eyes Without a Face taps into the viewer's fears by presenting us with a situation that is terrifying because it involves a central character living with horror. You can have all the maniacs with all the weapons you can think of; but it doesn't compare to having to go to bed every night with a face that is scarred beyond redemption. A fate worse than death, I'm sure you'll agree. This premise is given conviction through a stark and constantly foreboding atmosphere, which comes as a result of Eugen Shuftan's magnificent cinematography. The film has a crisp and clean look, which brilliantly offsets the macabre scenes that it is capturing. Thankfully, Georges Franju also seems keen to keep the focus on the surreal horror aspects of the story, which is shown by the way that he rushes through the police investigation that stems from the doctor's experiments. The film also features a striking and memorable musical score. The music sounds like it wouldn't be out of place in a carnival or circus, which fits the movie brilliantly as it covers the weird and wonderful imagery that we are treated to on screen.
Overall, Eyes Without a Face is a magnificent expression of the horror genre. The creativity and beauty of the film are sure to delight anyone who encounters it, and this is as important and as breathtaking as anything cinema has to offer. All I can say is that the word 'masterpiece' was added to the English language with this film in mind.
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