Eyes Without a Face ★★★★½

Georges Franju's haunting film is nothing short of a masterpiece. Most notably, the film's breathtaking cinematography - especially with its ability to capture the eeriness of its locations after nightfall - amplifies the mood of the film with beautiful nuance. The settings central to the story - a neoclassical mansion surrounded by dark woods, a graveyard where secrets lay hidden, and a cavernous basement in which horrific acts are carried out - are all beautifully captured.

The movie's central musical theme has a lilt to it which I am unable to decide is intentionally jaunty or merely a relic of its time, either way plays in stark contrast to the far more sinister story unfurling beneath it, and ultimately imbues an otherworldly creepiness to the piece as a whole.

The story being told here is meticulous, but never feels slow. There's a lot to take in within every frame, and Franju demonstrates his masterful ability to allow for silence and long scenes devoid of dialogue, which lend greater gravity to the performances of his talented cast. As a designer by trade, there's an obvious analogue in this to the principle of whitespace, the idea that the empty "undesigned" space is as important as the designed - if only to amplify it in contrast. These are the scenes that hit me with the very obvious feeling of watching an expert at work, and there's a carefully composed beauty in every single one of them.

Franju's narrative jumps in and out of various perspectives as the film's characters and stories intertwine, and he isn't afraid to break from traditional narrative modes. Case in point: towards the end of the second act there's a radical departure from anything else in the film, with an exposition sequence that feels perfectly clinical for its subject matter and a brilliant approach to documenting both the passing of time and the frustration the characters experience along with it.

To further reinforce Franju's mastery of storytelling, it's important to note that the film does not follow any single protagonist, and makes an interesting choice of primarily centring on the brilliant Pierre Brasseur's Dr. Genessier and his equally malevolent accomplice Louise (Alida Valli) as they go about their sordid experiments. These are essentially the villains of the story, but they are presented as much more than 2-dimensional characters and their depth and sense of purpose is what makes them compelling and, ultimately, all the more tragic.

While the film centrally revolves around Dr. Genessier's faceless daughter Christiane, her character arc is fascinating and only ever fully materializes as the final act comes to a close. Throughout the film we are left wondering where her own motivations and allegiances truly lie, and her familiar obligations and subservience are constantly in flux. But her story, in the end, is one both poetic and Shakespearean.

Everything about this movie exudes a confidence and technical mastery such that its difficult to find any fault with it. Without the ability for CGI or other visual trickery, there are a few action sequences that feel a little flat by today's standards, but are however forgivable in the context of when this film was made.

Clearly the ancestor of a great deal of slashers and thrillers that have come since in the last five and a half decades, this film casts a harsh light on so many of its descendants, as if to say, "You completely misunderstood what I was showing you how to do. This is what makes this genre work."