I don’t know if you knew this, but it turns out the French have balls. Yes, they’re historically notorious for being risk-takers and innovators in the world of high art, but who knew they could beat Hollywood at its own game?
Sure, France has had a great tradition of imitating and building off American genre cinema (look at Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows or Jean-Pierre Melville’s many films noirs), but what was truly surprising was when they proved they could dance toe-to-toe with us on our “lower” genres, that they could make their own B-horror flicks.The Blood
Legend has it that when Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival, spectators dropped like flies, prompting Franju to say, “Now I know why Scotsmen wear kilts.” If this audience knew anything about Franju going in, they might have been prepared for the still-disturbing centerpiece moment that allegedly caused the Scots to keel over in the aisles. A decade before, Franju made the short documentary Blood of the Beasts (watch, with caution), which is basically a procedural on the happenings of a slaughterhouse.
In it we witness the economic and methodical slaughtering of cows, sheep, and even a horse that is shot in the head before being butchered. The film’s narration is dry and monotone, as if we were watching the French version of a 50s after-school instructional film. The coldness of the presentation combined with the horrible gore of the imagery makes what is easily one of the most disturbing and difficult 20 minutes I’ve ever spent watching anything cinematic.
Was Blood of the Beasts some sort of odd mid-century rallying cry against vegetarianism? Hardly, though it can certainly be read that way sixty years later. But taking the historical context of the short into consideration, it becomes clear that the film is an unrelenting portrayal of methodic slaughter; it’s essentially the first French documentary about the Holocaust. The desperation, confusion, and anger is palpable, and makes the film all the more effective.
That short, I think, provides a good means of approaching Eyes Without a Face, Franju’s best-known work, because Blood of the Beasts quickly establishes him as a filmmaker who addresses big ideas with brunt force, yet at the same time his films in their surface presentation are never exactly what they seem to be. So while Eyes Without a Face is by all means a French B-horror movie (as opposed to, say, a French A-horror movie like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955)), it is at the same time not that.
Eyes Without a Face was released at a time of significant transition in regard to supposed “low genres” like horror and their relationship with critical tastemakers. There was, after all, significant journalistic interest in France at this time on behalf of the Cahiers du cinema and Francois Truffaut’s amorous love for the films of Alfred Hitchcock (who was, like Clouzot, better-known as a creator of suspense thrillers and not of horror films). Hitchcock at this time was still thought of in the States as a great director of entertainment, but the critical community had not yet conceded him as an artist/auteur. Yet it is no coincidence, I think, that Hitchcock’s own foray into B-horror occurs the very same year as Franju’s, for in submitting themselves to the perceived lower depths of filmmaking, each director proved their talent ever more convincingly through a dismantling of the assumptions that go into such films.
1960 as a decade marks a significant transition in the way the West thinks of cinema, moving from examining it narratively or as a medium providing technological escapism and entertainment to a work of art equivalent to the painting or the sculpture and the painter or sculptor positioned in the director’s chair. With this transition came a change in tide amongst culturally conscious critics who only considered films of immediate social relevance to be “important,” switching to high cultural value being found (implicitly) in genre fare. Conscious moviegoers thus trained themselves to look beyond what was immediately present and read films in between the lines, like the way one can read Blood of the Beasts as a Holocaust documentary rather than a slaughterhouse nonfiction procedural.
So it is significant that both Psycho and Eyes Without a Face were released in the first year of that decade as they signaled a drastic transition collapsing any previous distinctions between genre cults and high art. Such an erasure wouldn’t become accepted immediately, but by the end of the decade each film found a firm place not only in the horror canon, but in the canons of great cinema as well.
Film Without an Equivalent
Eyes Without a Face, like Psycho, is a unique, one-of-a-kind film, and also something of a one-time-only experience. As far as films that have successfully exported from France go, there’s hardly an equivalent in our knowledge of their film history. Franju ate at the table of the high artists, but he had a corner all his own, away from the young members of the New Wave, the social realists, or the European arthouse masters. Eyes Without a Face is aggressively his own, unclassifiable in any other form besides to utter that it is “of Franju” as it is something of a hyperkinetic, pre-postmodern text in that it collapses high and low culture, celebrates genre archetypes just as readily as it transcends and disturbs them, would fit into a venue as a cult midnight movie just as readily as it would be a piece in a modern art museum, and is a predicator for significant horror trends that would become inescapable from the genre later: particularly in its readability as an early work of “torture porn” and its implementation of one of the very first “final girls.”
At age fifty, Eyes Without a Face is still just as disturbing as it is beautiful, as confounding as it is engrossing, and as paradigmatic as it is unique.