Movie Review: “Les yeux sans visage” (Georges Franju, France/Italy 1960)

Ranked number 323 in 2012 Sight & Sound Critics Poll (5 votes).

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (Tom Six, The Netherlands 2009) created something of a sensation around the pure shock value of its premise, which was a continuation of a long line of films adapting the basic premise of the surgical evil of Frankenstein into a more modern, more misogynistic context. The very idea of having a surgeon attach people (two of them women) to one another surgically, forcing them to move by crawling together and two of them to sustain themselves by consuming the waste of the others was of course shocking, and the film claimed to place itself in this long legacy of films that simply did not care about niceties. Instead, it was a film that had absolutely nothing to offer beyond the shock value of its premise (Anyone who is reading this and hasn’t seen it, count yourself lucky and don’t start feeling like you missed anything.), and yet that pure shock value carried it to some commercial success and gave it a strong life on the internet that has carried on to this day, with some still considering the film over the line while others argue that anyone who can stomach the shock of the film will be richly rewarded.

In many ways, Les yeux sans visage is the Human Centipede of its time. The French film community, known for its high academic opinion of itself, had argued before that the intrinsic artistry of the country’s approach to the medium was at odds with the horror film, which was then as now considered the lowest form of the art. Even the release of one of the greatest horror films of all time, les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France 1955), five years earlier had apparently not prepared the French critics for the release of what is often considered the country’s first horror film in Les yeux sans visage, and they reacted accordingly, savaging the film as low art not worthy of being produced in France. The same reaction carried over to other countries, with one critic who reviewed the film well claiming that it almost resulted in losing his/her job. Years later, as often happens with “shocking” films, the film underwent a critical re-evaluation and was now considered a great film, some even considering it a masterpiece.

However, like Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958), it seems to me that the re-evaluation has taken things too far and praised a fine film that was unfairly denigrated on its release to a level that it does not deserve. It’s a fine film, and its shocking surgery scene is in fact still far more graphic than most films would attempt (truthfully, it was more effectively shocking than any scene in The Human Centipede), but it just isn’t saying that much and isn’t doing much to make what it is saying stand out.

The basic story of the film is short and simple. Docteur Génessier, a brilliant surgeon, sees his daughter suffer severe facial disfigurement in a car accident. Not wanting his daughter to suffer with this disfigurement for what remains of her life, he sets out to capture a young woman and attempt to transplant her face onto his daughter. His repeated failures result in the deaths of young women and his daughter losing faith in him and feeling like one of the dogs on which he experiments with regularity.

If that sounds like a familiar anti-science horror plot, it should, because it is again a modernization of Frankenstein. However, the film also complicates matters by not knowing whether to stay with Frankenstein‘s central theme of the dangers of science or instead focus on the theme of how much beauty matters in society. It makes both points rather bluntly at various points but not sticking to one makes it feel rather unfocused. For every moment we get like Louise saying that she owes her life to Génessier for reconstructing her face that clearly makes a point about society’s worship at the altar of beauty, we get another scene like Christiane’s comment that he is experimenting on her just like one of his dogs that goes back to attacking science. This lack of focus is the film’s largest problem, and it’s a shame because the premise really seems to lend itself to the beauty commentary so well.

Visually, Franju and cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, take an unusual tack that makes sense with Franju’s background as a documentary filmmaker, attempting to make the film look as mundane as possible so that the sheer craziness of the plot seems all the more realistic. It’s an interesting idea that works in that it keeps the shocking plot from seeming quite as shocking as it otherwise would be, but the lack of any attempt to use the lighting, composition, etc. to enhance the film’s visual point further confuses a narrative that already lacked focus.

Acting-wise, there’s little to say. Aida Valli, as the disturbingly loyal procurer of women for the surgeon, is very effective, but her performance is mostly about being cold, something that’s relatively easy to do. Pierre Brasseur, the nominal star, is appropriately stone-faced. The only character who has any real emotion to show is the daughter, Christiane, and we never really see her face, presumably because there was simply no ability to show her face on camera. None of the performances are weak, but they also just don’t require anything of the actors.

Maurice Jarre’s unusual score deserves a note. It moves back and forth between unusual circus-style themes and more traditionally haunting horror fare. Jarre was always a bit of an odd composer, and this film is no exception.