The Indy Film Club: Why the horrors of Eyes Without a Face are just as visceral today

Audiences at the time were horrified by the film’s graphic surgery scene, writes Clarisse Loughrey. But it’s gone on to inspire John Carpenter, Pedro Almodóvar and Billy Idol

Friday 01 May 2020 16:59
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Christiane (Édith Scob) is victim, monster, and (eventual) victor
Christiane (Édith Scob) is victim, monster, and (eventual) victor

There is an unexpected brutality to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. Released in 1960, just before Hitchcock’s Psycho, it too revels in suggestion and suspense. There are no cheap thrills to be found within its elegant, austere frames. It’s uncompromising in its glacial pace. But then comes the film’s infamous surgery scene – here the camera never breaks its gaze, nor is there any music to distract from what’s happening on screen. A scalpel cuts into flesh, tracing a crimson line across a young woman’s face. When the blood starts to drip down her neck, a hand reaches out with cotton gauze and coolly mops it up. It’s an emotionless scene, but that in itself feels chilling. When the scalpel’s work is done, the woman’s face is delicately lifted from her body and transported off screen.

These horrors are just as visceral today as they were 60 years ago. It’s a surprise Franju was ever able to get away with it. He worked in perpetual fear of the censors. “I was told, ‘No sacrilege because of the Spanish market, no nudes because of the Italian market, no blood because of the French market and no martyrised animals because of the English market,’” he later described. The Germans bristled, too, at depictions of mad scientists, since it evoked the era of Nazi medical experiments.

But these were all the ingredients of Jean Redon’s book Eyes Without a Face, which Franju adapted for the big screen. Renowned surgeon Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is racked with guilt. He’s responsible for the auto accident that left his daughter Christiane (Édith Scob) severely disfigured. And so his accomplice (The Third Man’s Alida Valli) stalks and drugs young women, bringing them back to the surgeon’s lair so that he can attempt to transplant their faces on to Christiane – and thus restore her former beauty.

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