The year 1960 was a very interesting time for American horror. Giant monster movies were losing their popularity, either because the threat of nuclear war wasn’t as acute as it had been in the ’50s or everyone had become so collectively numb over the years that the metaphor just no longer held their attention the way it once did. People were ready for something on a smaller scale, with movies that showed the horrible things that regular old humans were capable of doing to one another. Of course, the benchmark for this exploration of the damaged human psyche is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psyho, a film that pushed boundaries with glimpses of nudity, implications of incest, and toilets. But if America was looking to push the cinematic envelope, France was looking to tear it to pieces. Such was the case for director George Franju’s surreal, brutal thriller Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans visage).

Admittedly, Franju’s film wasn’t so much a response to Psycho (it came out several months before Hitchcock’s classic) as it was a response to the Nazi occupation of France in World War II.  The war had ended less than two decades prior when Eye Without a Face was released, and a majority of French cinema produced at the time reflected a desire to forget the horrors committed both by the Nazis and French citizens driven to collaboration out of fear or greed—a desire that manifested in films that focused on fantastical, often fairy tale-like themes. But in Eyes Without a Face, Franju looked to peel that artifice away both figuratively and literally (NOTE:  I found the bulk of the information about the historical context in French film in Alex West’s Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity and the Eyes Without a Face episode of Faculty of Horror. If you’re interested in this or other French cinema, I highly recommend it).

The film follows Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a brilliant surgeon, but awful human being who has decided to atone for disfiguring his daughter Christiane’s (Édith Scob) face in a car accident the only way he knows how: keep her locked in an upstairs room in his mansion until he can abduct a girl to serve as an unwilling donor for a skin graft. Assisting him (both at the operating table and in “recruiting” choice patients) is Louise (Alida Valli), a woman who’s been saved from her own disfigurement by Génessier’s techniques.

Where Franju really diverges from his contemporaries both in and out of France is a willingness to show where others were content to imply. Most films would talk about a death after the fact, or show a sterilized sequence where the only way we know a character is dead is simply seeing that they’re not moving anymore. Even Psycho, which was seen as risqué in its time, shows only brief glimpses of violence.

But Franju not only shows the horror, he dwells in it.  Perhaps the most memorable sequence in the film depicts Génessier and Louise performing a full facial extraction in a scene that lasts for several minutes, daring us to continue watching even as Génessier is pulling the poor girl’s face from her skull.  The proceeding sequence is almost as chilling, as we see that Christiane’s body is rejecting the skin graft through a series of graphic photos of her face slowly deteriorating. The photos are made all the more unsettling by the fact that they’re presented as clinical pictures, with a sterile, undramatic approach that makes it seem very real.

Also jarring is that although Franju is pushing a more avant-garde sensibility, testing the limits of what we can stomach in terms of content, the film still has the initial look and feel of its tamer contemporaries. George A. Romero threw me for a similar loop with Night of the Living Dead as a film that initially plays in the same style as a 1950s monster movie before Romero blindsides us with decomposing bodies and cannibalism. For Eyes Without a Face, even the simple use of black and white lulls us into a sense of complacency before it proceeds with the face pulling and the necrosis. In all fairness, the color choice was likely based on practicality, as few productions could afford Technicolor at the time, but it served the film well and also helped smooth the rough edges on what by today’s standards could be seen as rather crude effects.

The black and white color palette also complement’s Christiane’s mask perfectly. Without having to worry about how closely the color would match actress Édith Scob’s skin tone, Franju could create a visage that, from a distance, looks eerily like a real face. Only in this case, all vestiges of human emotion are gone as a way to show what’s been taken from Christiane, and, on another level, what’s been taken from France’s collective consciousness.

And that’s kind of the point. Franju isn’t just rolling out these disturbing images for shock value (well, maybe he is a little bit). He’s slapping us in the face to get our attention about some of the ugly truths his country wasn’t willing to face about itself, particularly that those in authority did some significant damage to those under their care during the Nazi occupation. We see this most pointedly in Génessier’s arc as a villain hidden in the guise of a sympathetic parent.

On one hand, you could argue that Génessier’s instincts as a father drive his actions, and many parents would forgive someone for committing otherwise horrible acts in the name of protecting their kids. But even if we forget the fact that Christiane’s disfigurement was Génessier’s fault in the first place and that his treatment of her amounts to psychological torture, the “protecting my kids” argument only goes so far. This was particularly relevant in occupied France, where people made decisions to save their loved ones that may have robbed other people of theirs. I understand there’s a vast amount of gray in these situations, but Franju is demanding that we at least consider the cost of protecting our own.

Franju’s indictment of French authority doesn’t end with Génessier. He also paints law enforcement in a less than favorable light through his depictions of Inspector Parot (Alexandre Rignault) and his partner (Claude Brasseur). While the duo may not be intentionally malicious, they are willing to leverage relatively minor shoplifting charges to coerce a young girl named Paulette (Béatrice Altariba) to act as bait based on their hunch about Génessier’s connection to the abductions. Then, they put precisely zero measures in place to keep track of her, leaving them completely oblivious when she’s inevitably abducted by Génessier.

So yeah, Franju clearly has some thoughts about how France reacted to the Nazi occupation and he was determined to get France to remove its collective rose-colored glasses following the war.

The film’s conclusion is as messy as that of the occupation, with certain characters coming to a grisly comeuppance and others going about their lives as if nothing happened. But without giving too much away, Christiane represents a seed of hope in all of the mess. She ends the film walking into an uncertain future, but one where she at least seems ready to accept that she needs to live with the damage done to her, a resolution Franju would have wished for all his countrymen.

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