Edith Scob Gave “the Unreal Reality”

Edith Scob in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960)

Though she was a major figure in French theater for over half a century and appeared in over a hundred film and television productions, Edith Scob, who has passed away at the age of eighty-one, will always be remembered first for her performance as Christiane in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960). She was twenty-two when she took on the role of the daughter of a surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) obsessed with restoring the delicate beauty of her face after it has been disfigured in a car wreck. When he isn’t attempting to graft fresh skin from the women he and his assistant have captured on to Christiane’s wounds, she wanders the large house alone wearing an expressionless plastic mask and slowly losing her mind. For novelist Patrick McGrath, Eyes Without a Face, which appeared last year on several lists of the best horror films ever made, “is for me the most chilling expression in cinema of our ancient preoccupation with the nature of identity.”

It was two years before Eyes that Scob, still a student of French and drama at the Sorbonne, had begun appearing onstage, launching a remarkable theatrical career that would include cofounding a theater in the late 1960s with her husband, composer Georges Aperghis. In 1959, she made her on-screen debut in Franju’s Head Against the Wall. Her role in the dark family drama was “small but memorable,” writes David Kalat, but in Eyes, her “fragile, doomed creature is the true star of the movie . . . Yes, Scob is beautiful and vulnerable, but beyond that she has an intangible air of mystery about her. Franju said of her: ‘She is a magic person. She gives the unreal reality.’” Scob and Franju would make four more films together, including Judex, a 1963 homage to Louis Feuillade’s silent-era serial of the same title. As Jacqueline Favraux, “she is the focal point for Franju of everything that is mysterious, everything that lies beyond mere story logic,” writes Geoffrey O’Brien. “Such is the force of Scob’s glance that we come to feel that Jacqueline is the one bearing witness to everything that happens in the film, the only one who registers the real feeling embedded within the childlike play of melodrama.” O’Brien also notes that Franju once said of Scob: “Edith doesn’t inspire me, she inhabits me.”

Between Eyes and Judex, Scob starred with Jean-Claude Brialy in Julien Duvivier’s mystery The Burning Court (1962), and she later appeared as the Virgin Mary in Luis Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969). She made six films with Raúl Ruiz; appeared in Jacques Rivette’s Joan the Maiden (1994), Pedro Costa’s Down to Earth (1994), and Andrzej Żuławski’s Fidelity (2000); and played “the delicately worried, aging matriarch Hélène,” as Kent Jones has described her character, in Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours (2008) and the emotionally needy mother of Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come (2016).

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