Georges Franju is apparently best known for his contributions to French Documentary Cinema. An impressive example is provided by "Blood of the Beasts" that forms a most welcome extra to this darkly poetic thriller that I have seen once before at a film art-house. Other extras include an insightful interview with the Director himself on the true nature of "horror", and an absorbing dialogue between Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac from whose collaboration the movie screenplay derives, as did the better known Diabolique (Clouzot) and Vertigo (Hitchcock). Franju's style is more restrained than those of the latter two directors, and the gentle musical accompaniment by Maurice Jarres is discreetly employed; the impact of the terrifying events is enhanced by the long silences and sparse dialogue that generally accompany them. In fact, this film at times has the feel of a silent movie, a significant contribution to the eeriness that haunts it and its main protagonists: Pierre Brasseur as the introverted and gifted plastic surgeon (Dr Genessier), unrecognizably the generous and exhuberant Frederic Lemaitre of LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS; Alida Valli (Harry Lime's grieving lover from THE THIRD MAN) as his secretary and accomplice Louise, ever-grateful for the brilliant facial reconstruction that restored her shattered life; and Edith Scob as his daughter Christiane, the Eyes Without a Face, whose devastating appearance ( only rarely revealed behind a plastic mask) is the result of a motor accident while her reckless father was at the wheel, for which she will never forgive him and he will never forgive himself.
The plot focuses upon the abduction, operation, and disposition of several near look-alikes in an endeavour by Genessier to graft a replacement face for his daughter. These operations take place in a purpose-built surgical suite in the sinister basement of his vast mansion adjacent to his private clinic, where he conducts experiments on a collection of large mongrel dogs, by far the loudest participants in the movie, and the agents of his ultimate and grisly end. The pacing of the film is leisurely, and the tension comes from the sudden cuts that jolt us into the next plot sequence with dramatic effect. The atmosphere throughout is quietly tense, created and sustained by the beautiful images that Franju conjures from his camera, infused with equal concentrations of suspense and pure poetry. I don't want to reveal any more of the story-line, but the narrative, such as it is, receives admirable support from the lesser actors represented mainly by the police and the clinic staff. There are several moments of profound symbolism, such as the use of the Genessier family mausoleum to conceal the victims, but most of all in the terrifying denouement where dogs and doves figure prominently ( can you have a more dramatic contrast in the wild-life kingdom?), and the film leaves us with the haunting vision of the faceless Christine walking towards the camera through the woods, one of the white birds poeticaly perched on her outstretched arm. This is not entertainment, but something much finer: an expression of the cinema as art of the highest order, and it is beautifully presented in this almost-perfect Criterion video transfer.