I'm grateful, then, that when I was researching Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage) I found film historian David Kalat's essay for the Criterion Collection DVD. Kalat covers the history of the film and the career of director Georges Franju, and some very good points about the French film industry at the time. It's a short essay, and recommended reading.
Eyes... follows the plans and experiments of a brilliant medical doctor, and his attempts to repair the horribly-scarred face of his daughter (in a car accident when he was driving) by transplanting the faces of unwilling young female donors. She is hidden away in his country house after having "escaped" from the hospital. One of the donors dies from her injuries and is dumped into the river by Dr. Génessier’s assistant. When her body is found, and the doctor is called in to identify the body, presumed to be his daughter, it's his chance to officially declare Christiane dead -- allowing him more time to perfect his transplantation techniques...
There are two points in Kalat's essay that I would like to elaborate on:
The key was in finding the right tone. Feuillade’s genius was in his affectless, matter-of-fact depictions of the wildest, pulpiest lunacy. Franju inverted the equation, while still juxtaposing the fantastique with the mundane, the impossible with the everyday. Franju was on record that “I’m led to give documentary realism the appearance of fiction.” Or, put another way: “Kafka becomes terrifying from the moment it is documentary. In documentary I work the other way round.” Any way you slice it, Franju was fixated on the seam between actuality and fantasy.Part of what makes Eyes... so effective is this realism. I find the matter-of-fact, realistic style of film-making very compelling and unsettling, particularly for horror and suspense movies. It's the difference between The Blair Witch and Blair Witch 2, as an example. Eyes... doesn't flow in the same way as "horror" films from the time. Only the face transplant scene has any gore, and even then it's very tame by modern standards (looking more like grape jelly to me than blood). The film is much more ethereal with the ever-present darkness, fog and isolation. It adds to the effect of Dr. Génessier’s guilt and obsession. I think this is where we see some of the French film-making style in action.
Edith Scob had worked with Franju on Head Against the Wall in a small but memorable role, and the two became a team: Franju cast her in four more films after this one. Yes, Edith is beautiful and vulnerable, but beyond that she has an intangible air of mystery about her. Franju said of her: “She is a magic person. She gives the unreal reality.”Scob's character Christiane is the key to the film. She drifts through the film as things happen around her, until the end when she acts, almost as an avenging angel, but gently.
Eyes Without a Face is available in an excellent special edition DVD from the Criterion Collection. This is the source of Netflix's streaming version, which is the method I used to watch it.