Today in the Cinemaccountability Series, we’re switching gears with a horror flick from 1960: Les Yeux sans visage (“Eyes Without a Face”). I’m not normally a fan of this genre, but this film drew me in with its dark-but-poetic charm. If you’re looking for a French film to watch for Halloween, un vendredi 13, or a fun weekend night in, this could be it! Find out more below!
Les Yeux sans visage / Eyes Without a Face
1960 — 1h30
English Title and Literal Translation: Eyes Without a Face
American Release Title: The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus
Director: Georges Franju
Cast: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, and Édith Scob
Based on: Les Yeux sans visage by Jean Redon (Published in 1959)
After causing a car accident that disfigures his daughter Christiane’s face, Dr. Génessier becomes obsessed with restoring her beauty. With the help of Louise, a loyal assistant whose damaged face he successfully repaired, Génessier resorts to horrific acts to give Christiane a new face and a new life.
Being a Child of the Nineties, my first thought was: Face-Off. And one might wonder how much that film’s director, John Woo, was influenced by Les Yeux sans visage. But wait, we’re not here to talk about 90s action movies! Parlons des films d’horreur.
I’ll admit it. Both fear and disgust have contributed to my allergy to most horror films, particularly those that cheaply leverage gore and gratuitous violence to up the shock factor—and there have been many of those in recent decades. But Les Yeux sans visage comes from an era when censorship was still very strict and special effects weren’t that realistic. Furthermore, director Georges Franju was clearly focused on giving spectators something more than blood and blood-curdling screams. (Fun fact: the original Psycho film came out the same year—1960.)
The Darkness Within
So if stomach-turning gore wasn’t the driving characteristic of this medical horror film, what was? Hands down, it was the psychological component—the exploration of darkness within the main characters. Even the one truly gory scene, which was considered very graphic at the time, didn’t hold a candle to the silent terror caused by the characters’ machinations.
First, there’s Dr. Génessier, who’s aware of his actions but prioritizes his ego. He’s not a mad scientist in the traditional sense, but his ice-cold, methodical manner and laconic speech will have you squirming in your seat.
Then there’s the occasionally conflicted Louise, who shows more loyalty to the doctor than humanity to the young women that she ensnares with false motherliness. A feeling of terror washed over me every time she tricked unsuspecting girls into taking a ride with her.
Finally, even Christiane is complicit in all this, her virginal white robes and Rapunzel-like seclusion belying her culpability. The mask she’s forced to wear while awaiting her new visage is both beautiful and disturbing, reflecting the character’s struggle with her conscience and isolation from the world.
Poetry & Lyricism in Horror
It’s strange to describe a horror film as poetic, but there was an eerie, lyrical quality that permeated the film and reached a climax at the end. From the curious soundtrack to Christiane’s graceful movements while wearing her disguise, there’s beauty and emotion that stands out against the cold backdrop of Dr. Génessier’s countryside mansion and secret laboratory. Les Yeux sans visage is almost a dark fairy tale, something you’d have expected of the Brothers Grimm had they gone into medicine and had a surrealist bent. The sizable helping of poetic justice also contributes to the fable-like nature.
Twisted, but beautiful. Or beautiful, but twisted. It’s your pick. But viewers will surely get caught up in both the horror and haunting appeal of this black-and-white classic, which, if you can believe it, was only Franju’s second feature film.
Les Yeux sans visage gets a mention bien from me. It’s not the scariest movie ever made, but when you think about the impact it must have had at the time and its beauté macabre, it becomes a horror film worth watching.
How to approach Les Yeux sans visage as a language student
One of the film’s characteristics that makes it well suited to most levels is the relatively slow pace at which the actors speak. It adds to the creepiness, but conveniently, it also makes the dialogue easier to understand. Beginners will still likely need subtitles to catch everything about Christiane’s backstory and the witty banter between the investigating police officers. However, even without the assistance, the story is simple enough to follow.
While the characters’ actions speak more than they do, the sparse dialogue offers students a few chances to pick up interesting vocabulary. There’s a lot of conversation about appearances, particularly Christiane’s, as it’s her blue-eyed beauty the doctor is trying to recreate. There’s also a lot of medical terminology thanks to Dr. Génessier. In one scene (the goriest one!), he repeatedly asks for le scalpel (or le bistouri) and la pince (a clamp / tongs). In others, you’ll hear about des greffes (grafts), la nécrose (necrosis), la migraine, etc.
4 sur 5 marguerites
Trailer / Bande-annonce for Les yeux sans visage
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