Eyes Without a Face opens to the sound of a jaunty and strangely carnivalesque music as an apprehensive and distracted woman named Louise (Alida Valli) hurriedly navigates through a dark and empty stretch of highway, momentarily veering off course to the side of the road by the ominous sight of a speeding vehicle quickly approaching from the rearview mirror, before continuing on her undefined task. Stopping by a secluded riverbank along the Seine, she drags the lifeless body of her passenger and, with a violent splash, disposes of the unidentifiable victim into the shallow waters. The following morning, an esteemed medical research professor, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), conducts a clinical lecture on the process of heterografting – the transplantation of living tissue from one biologically compatible organism to another that he proposes can be fostered by exsanguination and radiation of the patient – as a means of preserving and re-capturing youth. Meanwhile, having recovered the partially nude body from the Seine, the police summon the parents of two young women who reportedly disappeared from the area for possible identification: Emile Tessot (René Génin), the father of a missing student named Simone, and Dr. Génessier whose daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), facially disfigured in an automobile accident caused by his recklessness, is believed to have committed suicide. Arriving early at the morgue, Dr. Génessier claims the faceless body as his daughter’s, and turns away the anxious Tessot. However, the seemingly tragic resolution to Christiane’s fate proves more obscured when, during the funeral, Louise is revealed to be Dr. Génessier’s personal assistant and former patient, and subsequently, the despondent Christiane, in seclusion at the professor’s remote sanatorium, discovers a signed death certificate bearing her name. Gradually, the details of Dr. Génessier and Louise’s unconscionable plot are revealed, as the two devoted custodians, driven by love, guilt, and madness, return to their sinister routine in a desperate attempt to restore Christiane’s shattered face…and life.
Based on a novel by Jean Redon (and adapted for film by Redon, the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac who would later collaborated on the adaptations for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Henri-Georges Cluozot’s Les Diaboliques, and Claude Sautet who also served as assistant director), Eyes Without a Face is an atmospheric, exquisitely stylized, and deeply disturbing portrait of obsession, inhumanity, and the elusive quest for perfection. Georges Franju juxtaposes elements of visual dichotomy and expressionist imagery – chiaroscuro lighting, acute angle shots, and grotesque forms – to create a polarized and dystopian perspective that reflect the characters’ psychological disconnection and increasing myopic obsession: Dr. Génessier’s ascent to his daughter’s room after her discover of the death certificate, the unfocused framing of an unmasked Christiane during Edna’s (Juliette Mayniel) encounter with her while in a state of delirium, her shifting countenance of transitory beauty and permanent disfigurement, the bizarre menagerie of caged birds and rescued wild dogs confined in the cellar. A provocative psychological examination that alternately conveys affection and horror, compassion and atrocity, devotion and mania, Eyes Without a Face serves a haunting and indelible portrait on the abusive and dehumanizing toll of desolation, violence, captivity, and vanity.
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