(Original Title: Les Yeux Sans Visage)
It opens on a woman anxiously driving through the night; we soon see what she does at her destination, but do not know why. Then there is a lecture given by Dr. Génessier, where more pieces of exposition and information are revealed… but not until later in the first section, as we follow the Doctor through a series of stairs and doorways, does the narrative become entirely clear.
The beauty of Eyes Without a Face is that it remains utterly entrancing even after it yields its secrets. It is a mystery film, mystery with a core of horror, and yet it does not seek to frighten — it is horror of a gentle, fairy-tale disposition that plays upon a particular mood, a peculiar feeling without a specific source: the urge to examine each shot thoroughly even when the center of attention is very blank and smooth. I am referring here to the mask of Christiane Génessier, a piece of minimalist art that is all the more fascinating because of what it hides — one can be caught between wanting to know what is beneath and apprehension at the thought of actually seeing.
Christiane begins with her face hidden in a pillow, so there is also anticipation before and release upon seeing the mask. But the film does not stop upon the bewitching moment of its revelation; she walks through the house shortly after, and by the way she moves and how she travels across the frame, she is graceful in a slow, singular way. Her costume helps: always in a long white coat or robe, only her head is really shown, and because it is so carefully arranged, she is entirely perfect.
There is a dark side to the film as well — as in a dream, peace can give way to voids of anxiety at any moment. But the nightmare aspects of this film are quite dreamlike: a surgery is depicted, but it lacks truly gruesome detail; the effect is as if we—the audience, or perhaps even the cameramen — are on anesthetic, numbly disturbed but not quite ready to look away.
This is, perhaps, is how the Doctor’s secretary — an assistant at this surgery and his other activities throughout the film — feels. Surprisingly, we grow to learn that the seemingly innocuous Doctor is actually tough as nails: every character in the film is affected by his actions, and he in turn is driven by the pursuit of scientific achievement, a force beyond his own will.
I’ve gotten the personal impression from many French movies that their acting style is far more naturalistic than ours — there is far less posing, (and, in turn, less self-conscious awareness of the camera itself). The end result is never better than Pierre Brasseur’s depiction of the doctor as a fundamentally average, almost sympathetic man in a transcendental film. (The same, of course, goes for Alida Valli as the secretary and Edith Scob as Christiane.) A theatrical, cackling Mad Scientist character, or other stock types, might have destroyed the film’s delicate atmosphere.
Even after showing everything, the film has special aspects like this to discover and consider. And the wonderful thing is, although it has appealing influences from the horror and mystery genres, you can get as close to it as you’d like; it won’t bite.