“Smile … not too much.” This fond but apprehensive instruction is addressed to patient by doctor, a relationship that also happens to be father and daughter, in the durably insidious and haunting French horror melodrama “Eyes Without a Face.”
The context is singularly eerie. The solicitous physician, a plastic surgeon named Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), has transposed the facial epidermis of another young woman, not a willing donor, to the ravaged visage of his daughter Christianne (Edith Scob), secluded in the palatial villa that adjoins his suburban clinic. The doctor fears the transplant may fail, like earlier attempts. His fears are justified.
Originally released in 1959, the movie is being revived through Thursday at the AFI Silver Theatre, concluding AFI’s portion of the Kennedy Center’s Festival of France. Despite a title that approaches perfection, director Georges Franju’s “Eyes” ended up disfigured and retitled when first imported to the United States in the early 1960s. Intent on exploitation at the schlock level, the distributor trimmed the running time to less than 90 minutes, replaced the French dialogue with a dubbed soundtrack and called the revamp “The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.”
Admirers contend that the movie elevates itself stylistically beyond mere pulp, but the claim isn’t foolproof. The pretext was fleshed out, so to speak, by the hugely successful and opportunistic mystery-writing team of Thomas Boileau and Pierre Narcejac, who had devised “Diabolique” for Henri-Georges Clouzot and enticed Alfred Hitchcock with the masochistic tangle known as “Vertigo.”
The plot of “Eyes” has an undeniably powerful emotional core: A gifted surgeon cannot repair the damage inflicted on his child in a car accident and grows more despotic and criminal with each futile attempt at facial transplants until the despairing patient herself takes measures to stop him.
The storytelling betrays numerous seams and fissures. For one, it seems lame to blame Dr. Genessier for the car accident that has disfigured Christianne. This calamity has occurred before the movie begins, and it doesn’t compare with the creepy aftermath we observe repeatedly, in which the father’s love and pity have taken a turn for the criminally insane. The Brasseur voice, the most deep-timbred instrument in French movies apart from that of the great comic impresario Sacha Guitry, reinforces the idea of a warped paternal impulse; even remarks meant to be tender come out with a harsh, domineering resonance.
Mr. Franju (1912-1987), an admired documentary filmmaker before he turned somewhat belatedly to dramatic features, may never have achieved optimum confidence and fluidity with actors and fictional scenarios. His “Judex” (1963), meant to evoke the serials of silent pioneer Louis Feuillade, was a great disappointment. Mr. Franju was never wedded to the horror genre; later prestige productions, adaptations of Francois Mauriac’s “Therese Desqueyroux” and Jean Cocteau’s “Thomas the Imposter,” remain virtually unknown in this country.
Nevertheless, there are dreadful highlights in “Eyes Without a Face” that have echoed down through the cinematic years. For example, the opening sequence, which isolates Alida Valli in a tiny Citroen at night, ferrying one of the doctor’s victims to a watery grave, anticipates the look of Janet Leigh’s nocturnal odyssey in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” made a year later. A variant on the mannequin’s mask that conceals Christianne’s disfigurement reappeared recently in the Spanish film “Open Your Eyes” and its Hollywood remake, “Vanilla Sky.” There’s even an astonishing moment when Dr. Genessier says the line, “Open your eyes.”
Mr. Franju stages a skin-crawling, mock-clinical set piece, rendered obsolete two generations later by the spectacle of authentic plastic surgery on television, but an ingenious shocker in its time. We observe the doctor at work in his private operating room, scalping the face of a young woman abducted in order to facilitate another transplant. He outlines the surface with a pencil and then cuts along his mark with a scalpel, causing little rivulets of blood to surface. Ultimately, a latex mask is lifted in one piece. (Latex itself was a relatively new resource for makeup artists at the time.)
A black-and-white movie, “Eyes” reflects an often masterful control of ominous overtones and undercurrents by the legendary German cinematographer Eugen Schufftan (1893-1977), whose credits ranged from “Metropolis” to “Port of Shadows” to “The Hustler.”
Its classic horror sequences notwithstanding, much of the eeriness that distinguishes “Eyes Without a Face” goes hand in hand with a heavy tread and stilted tone.
TITLE: “Eyes Without a Face”
RATING: No MPAA rating (Originally released in France in 1959, years before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter with sinister and macabre thematic elements; occasional graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details)
CREDITS: Directed by Georges Franju. Screenplay by Thomas Boileau and Pierre Narcejac, Jean Redon, Claude Sautet and Mr. Franju, based on a novel by Mr. Redon. Cinematography by Eugen Schufftan. Sets by Auguste Capelier. Special effects by Henri Assola. Assistant director: Claude Sautet. Music by Maurice Jarre. In French with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS