In 1937, along with Henri Langlois, Georges Franju co-founded the Cinémathèque Française, the world's first dedicated film archive, where he worked until 1949.
Franju made several short films, including many documentaries, before moving into feature films, and later, television work. Generally best classified as a 'fantasist', along with Jean Cocteau, his work is informed by surrealism, silent cinema and anarchy, though the last of these influences is only subtle - well masked by irony.
His first solo short put him on the map: Le Sang des Betês (Blood of the Beasts, 1949) a surprisingly lyrical documentary filmed in a Paris abattoir, narrated by surreal film-maker Jean Panlevé. The film derives much effect from its unflinching portrayals of slaughterhouse reality, but in a non-sensationalist, un-critical way.
On the strength of this, he was invited to make a documentary on the French National Military Museum, which still housed war veterans at the time. Hôtel des Invalides (1951) is a subtle critique of violence, with an undercurrent of wryly, subversive humour beneath its formal exterior. Other short documentary subjects included a biography of Méliès, the silent film Magician, and Pierre and Marie Curie.
In 1958 he made his feature debut with La Tˆte Contre les Murs (The Keepers). This was followed in 1959 by his most influential, and perhaps most celebrated film, Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face). What, in the hands of many other directors, would have remained a very pulpy horror film, is elevated to a poetic level by Franju's treatment of the material and his personal style. The story is relatively simple and, so reduced, is the best way to appreciate the down-market virtues of the tale. Dr Genessier has crashed his car, causing facial disfigurations to his assistant and daughter. While he has managed, to a great extent, to rectify his assistant's appearance, he has been failing with his daughter's. He has therefore been arranging for the assistant to abduct young women, whereupon he has attempted to graft their faces onto his daughters' by way of a transplant.
The effect of the horror (and yes, we do see a facial transplant operation performed) is heightened by the otherwise tender, lyrical tone of the film. At various times we side with various characters, but the bulk of our sympathies lie with the daughter, Christiane. She glides slowly, like an angelic ghost, masked, kept almost as a prisoner in her father's house. She remains an unwilling accomplice to the actions of her father, and heartbroken that she's unable to communicate with her love, who unwittingly grieves for her. Few films manage to balance such tenderness with such horror, let alone while probing occasionally some philosophical and ethical issues.
By contrast, Judex (1963) was an affectionate homage to the silent serials of Louis Feuillade. Franju had originally asked his backers if he could make Fantômas, another of Feuillade's creations, but with a greater emphasis on the villain. There's a certain Freudian kitsch-ness about his Judex, derived through costume, performance, plot and mise-en-scene, which lends it an almost 1960s Batman-esque feel. In certain sequences, one senses Franju must have been laughing behind the camera in the same way that the Surrealist group had laughed at Feuillade's originals from the audience.
His later films included Le Faute d'Abbe Mouret (The Sins of Father Mouret, 1970), adapted from the novel by Zola, and Les Nuits Rouge (Shadowman, 1973), an offbeat return to the masked-hero adventures in the vein of Judex. This, his last feature, was also known as Homme Sans Visage (Man Without a Face) and is said to have been intended as the pilot for a television series of that name. The majority of his later work was in television.
An Actor's Director?
While never famous as an 'actor's director', he encouraged fine performances from several key actors of French cinema, including Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Anouk Aimée, Charles Aznavour, Phillipe Noiret, Jean Servais, Jean Louis Trintignant, Emmanuele Riva and Alida Valli. He did, however, get the best-known work out of some key collaborators behind the scenes, including Eugen Shuftan, Maurice Jarre, Georges Delarue, Jean Cocteau, Marguerite Duras and Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.
Franju was one of the few filmmakers to have really excelled in developing his own highly personal film style. Across a broad range of subject matter, he forged an identity through his poetic films and striking images. He could make profound statements with the lightest touch; memorable images from minimalist material. Few directors have come close to rivalling his ability to create such personal style with such minimal fuss in their images; fewer still have rivalled the lyrical poetry of his best films.
Very little is known about his twin brother Jacques Franju!