After causing an accident that left his daughter Christiane severely disfigured, the brilliant surgeon Dr. Génessier works tirelessly to give the girl a new face. He does so however by kidnapping young women and attempting face transplants. He has been woefully unsuccessful to date. The doctor's world begins to collapse around him when his daughter realizes just what he has been doing.Written by
At the time 'Les yeux sans visage' was released, the film was not very popular and faced common rejection by the critics. Regardless of those dis-affirmations, it raised to the position of a classic in the horror genre. Franju - one of the founders of the legendary Cinemathèque Française - succeeded in an intriguing way to make film history sensible as a source of inspiration of an entirely peculiar vision.
The clinic of Dr. Génessier (P. Brasseur) is located not very far from Paris. Famous as a specialist in skin grafting, nobody foreshadows that the scientific ambition of the surgeon is incident with a horrifying secret: Since an accident has destroyed the face of Génessier's daughter, Christiane (Scob), the doctor does everything to reconstruct her beauty. With the help of his assistant Louise (Valli) he clucks young women in his remote mansion, benumbs them and makes them a victim of a macabre surgical operation. In a hidden operating room in the basement of his house, Génessier removes the facial skin and transplants it on Christiane's face. Without lasting successes.
That Franjus film has not suffer losses from its immensely disturbing effects is because of, if nothing else, the camera work of Eugen Schüfftans. His brilliant black and white shots resurrects the bright dark of the expressionist German silent film. It imparts Villa Génessier a threatening life of it's own, transmutes it in a mazy horror house which seems like one can not escape. The shadows of the stairway handrails lay on everybody who enters the building like grids and makes him optically a prisoner of Génessier's delusion, mostly his daughter Christiane. Cut from a real life she haunts through the paternal ruins, the garbled face concealed behind a white porcelain mask, whose sad expression seems to nail the doom of the young woman.
Christiane's mask also points out a central principle of formation of the film: It's suspense results substantially from the interaction of visible and invisible things, of showing and dissembling. Franju subtly creates a nightmarish atmosphere that evokes the horror of Génessier's actions, but never makes it explicitly in the first instance - only to show it the viewer more pitilessly: When the surgeon unprovided cuts into the juvenilely beautiful face of one of his victims. This moment of shocking intensity reminds of the razor blade cut through the woman's eye of Bunuel's surrealistic classic 'Un chien andalou' (1929). With the same zest to provoke, Franju also presents the result of an ostensibly succeeded operation: A sober sequence of photographs shows, commented by Génessier off-stage, at first Christiane's angelically delicate face, then how the transplanted skin becomes patchy a few days later, splits open and two weeks later dies off. The cruelty of those two sequences exposes Génessier as a perverted, pestilent doctor and his paternal love as brutal obsession. The attempt to give his daughter a new face means at the same time to erase her identity, to create the ideal woman.
'Les yeux sans visage' remains in the memory of the viewer as one of the rare places on the imaginary continent, phantasmagoric and exigent with ample suspense and shocking details, a perfect alchemy of horror and allegoric poesy whereby one of the most beautiful horror films came into being.
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