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At the cinematheque: "Eyes Without a Face" (Franju, France, 1960)

Eyes Without a Face
Above: Edith Scob in Eyes Without a Face.
Mostly one notices the things that Georges Franju doesn't do in Les Yeux sans visage. Conspicuously, he's not big on suspense, though the genre seems to mandate it. The story plods at a steady, measured pace, even when something urgent is happening. Note how the gruesome surgery scene gives us so little clue when it will end and when the unpleasant bits will occur - it consists mostly of unrushed cross-cutting between surgeon and victim. Note also how final girl Béatrice Altariba just sort of turns up on the operating table without the usual buildup, and how the film's climax happens without much warning - it feels as if the film could have absorbed another victim or two. One of the consequences of Franju's lack of interest in dramatic propulsion is that the film doesn't completely dodge tedium during the many sequences when characters simply traverse the spaces of their lives.
Another thing Franju doesn't do is psychology. Everyone has a motivation, but a single big one, as in a fable. Alida Valli's character cries out for psychological texture: she seems like a nice sort, bound to the doctor by gratitude. Yet she betrays a succession of innocent young women with perfect sang-froid, like a storybook villainess. Edith Scob's Christiane is even more of a question mark: she knows others are dying so that she can get a new face. A psychologically oriented director might have shown her as totally controlled, to preserve her innocence; or as a spoiled brat who needs to learn that the lives of others have value. Franju takes neither route: he prefers her as an archetype. And, when the film arrives at its stunning denouement, she rebels like a archetype, taking a life in exchange for lives, and freeing her father's menagerie with the exaggerated, sweeping gestures of a princess in a fairy tale. Surely the entire film is an excuse for Franju to create the terrifying and beautiful image of her walking into the night with her animal retainers. The viewer receives the ending in the spirit of legend, yet supplies its undertone of terror by remembering the girl's unnervingly poor prospects.
The first scene of the film contains an image that quietly announces Franju's presence: the shot of the mysterious body in the back seat of the car, face concealed by a hat. Franju films it simply with a calm, sustained medium closeup that suggests no point of view - he seems to invite us to get comfortable with the ominous but unassuming figure. Later in the film, the director shows a very distinct interest in the Uncanny Valley, as embodied by Edith Scob's almost-natural mask. And he will break the time-honored rule of fiction that mutilated or physically damaged characters must die to relieve the audience's discomfort. It would be half true to suggest that Franju wants to make the audience uneasy. The other half of the truth is that he wants us to be calm and accepting in the face of this uneasiness, and even to find beauty in the unsettling object.

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