Director: Georges Franju
Note: This post was originally published in 2010 and is one of the most popular posts ever at The Movie Projector.
When I was in high school, one of the most notorious parts of the driver education course was a slide show of gruesome car crashes, a fright tactic intended to discourage teenagers from dangerous driving. So graphic were these slides that before beginning, the teacher gravely told the class that anyone too disturbed by them could leave the room at any time. One of the slides was of a boy who had been run over by a car and whose face had been sliced off by the car's sharp bumper. The slide showed the boy's face, looking as if it had been surgically removed, lying next to the upper part of his body. The most unsettling thing about the slide, though, was not the face, but that the boy's head minus the face had been completely whited out. This could mean only one thing—that in this presentation designed to horrify, what remained after the face had been sliced away was just too grisly to show. The juxtaposition of that mask-like face and the blank head next to it is a chilling image I'll never forget.
That high school classroom stunt is what came to mind as I watched George Franju's horror classic Eyes Without a Face, the story of a young woman, Christiane Génissier (Edith Scob), whose face has been horribly damaged in a car accident that happened while her father (Pierre Brasseur) was driving. The father is Docteur Génissier, an experimental transplant surgeon, in reality a modern mad scientist who kidnaps young women and attempts to transplant their faces onto his daughter's to restore her beauty. In the meantime, Christiane is kept secreted in the attic of a rambling mansion adjoining her father's private clinic in the suburbs of Paris and forced to wear an expressionless, corpselike mask modeled on her own features. Unfortunately, her body keeps rejecting the transplants, so aided by his devoted assistant Louise (Alida Valli), whose looks he has restored with what appears to be the removal of a disfiguring goiter, Dr. Génissier must keep kidnapping more victims. Eventually Christiane's fiancé Jacques, also a doctor at the clinic, becomes suspicious about what is happening and goes to the police, who persuade a young female shoplifter to help them entrap the doctor by becoming his next victim.
This is understandably a film whose eeriness—the way it blurs the distinction between dream and nightmare, the way it finds beauty in the grotesque—created an intense and unsettling impression while I was watching it. What is not so easy to understand is why that impression not only stuck with me afterward, but continued if anything to grow, evoking strong visual memories every time I thought of the movie. Part of the reason is almost certainly what I would call the film's atavistic nature. Elements of the film seem so familiar that even while watching it, I had a sense of déjà vu—and I mean this in a good way.
The very first sequence, of Louise driving the body of the first victim to the Seine to dump it, lets us know this is going to be a movie that acknowledges its origins. The body, slumped in the back seat of Louise's car with a man's hat on its head and wearing a trench coat with the collar pulled up so that it completely obscures the missing face, immediately brings to mind The Invisible Man. Throughout the film, references to many other works in the horror genre are invoked. The mask seems an allusion to The Phantom of the Opera; the mad scientist, faithful assistant, and laboratory to Frankenstein; Louise in her car trawling for victims to Boris Karloff in The Body Snatcher, or to any of the other characters based on Burke and Hare; Christiane gliding around the spooky house in her white, shroud-like peignoirs to everything from Dracula and The Bride of Frankenstein to I Walked with a Zombie. I'm sure dedicated aficionados of the genre could spot far more than I did. There are even allusions to films not strictly in the genre. A portrait of Christiane dressed in white and holding a white dove on the back of her hand over the fireplace put me in mind of Laura. (Remember that the reason the body in Laura was misidentified was that its face had been blown off with a shotgun. Moreover, a crucial misidentification of one of Dr. Génissier's faceless victims happens early in this movie too.) Anyone who has seen Broken Blossoms will surely be reminded of that film in the dinner scene, which I'll get to in a bit.
Another reason the film sticks in one's mind so tenaciously is that even though it contains many visual elements that might have lodged in the memory of anyone who has watched a lot of movies, it presents these images in unexpected and sometimes jarring ways. In that opening sequence, the music by Maurice Jarre—nothing like his romantic scores for movies like Doctor Zhivago, but instead a dead ringer for the jaunty, carnivalesque scores Nino Rota wrote for Fellini—forms a weirdly anomalous counterpoint to what we're seeing on the screen: an anxiety-wracked woman driving through a foggy night with a dead body in the back seat of her car and clearly terrified she is going to be discovered before she can get rid of it. Later, in a sequence that might at first seem out of place in this movie, Dr. Génissier examines a little boy who is losing his eyesight. He reassures the boy's mother that he can cure the boy, but the glances exchanged between him and his assistant made me think that the case was hopeless and his assurances a benign falsehood. This sequence, which shows him in a sympathetic light, is immediately followed by one in which he visits a laboratory where that young shoplifter is undergoing tests with wires attached to her head that make her look like the victim of some kind of bizarre torture, rather like those photos of Abu Ghraib. Outwardly, he shows the same solicitude to her as he had to the little boy, yet we already know he is planning to abduct and mutilate her.
This is not the only scene that shows what a paradox Dr. Génissier is, and that emphasis on showing the main people in the film as psychologically well-defined characters rather than the flat stereotypes of the typical horror film is another thing that distinguishes Eyes Without a Face. A pioneering researcher working in a field with the potential to be of immense benefit to humanity, Dr. Génissier no doubt performs many good works at his clinic. Yet he has a dark side brought out by Christiane. Just what is his motivation in devoting himself to restoring his daughter's beauty to the extent that it becomes an obsession compelling him to commit the most horrible crimes? Is it guilt because he feels responsible for the accident? Is the situation one that piques his medical curiosity and gives him an opportunity to advance his life's work, with his own daughter the ultimate test subject? Is he driven by vanity, the godlike need to control? Whatever his motivation, love barely seems to enter into it. Look at the unfeeling way he manipulates the adoring Louise to help him commit his atrocities. Even though he shows devotion to his daughter, he never displays any real affection for her.
When Christiane tells Louise early in the film that her father is driven by the reckless need to control, that this is precisely what caused the car accident, she probably is close to the truth about him. This is especially evident in the dinner scene with Louise, Dr. Génissier, and Christiane that takes place shortly after a transplant appears to have succeeded and Christiane has indeed regained her beauty. Louise tells her that she is even more beautiful than before, that there is something angelic about her, to which Christiane replies that when she looks in the mirror she sees a face which resembles her own, but it's like looking at a different person who seems far away. In response, the controlling Dr. Génissier lays out his elaborate plans for her future then coldly tells his daughter not to be so negative and instructs her to smile. Christiane, compliant but clearly experiencing emotional stress, immediately does so. At this point I couldn't help thinking of the brutal Donald Crisp forcing a smile from the gentle Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms, and I wondered if the same dynamic of control and victimization might be at play here, only with the sadism concealed under a veneer of concern.
Christiane is just as much an enigma as her father. It's impossible to say with certainty what she was like before the accident, although her relationship with Jacques indicates she probably led a normal life. But now she seems in many ways as blank as the mask that conceals her face, and as incapable of registering emotion. Restricted by the mask and her long, shapeless gowns, Edith Scob must concentrate her performance in her body—in her posture and the way she moves. With her rail-thin physique and elongated, birdlike neck and hands, she does a tremendous job of creating an almost spectral presence, silently drifting through the house like a ghost. She also conveys through her characterization the impression that Christiane has in a sense grown into her mask. That remark at the dinner table about what she sees in the mirror suggests that she feels she has lost her identity, that she has come to regard that inexpressive mask as more reflective of her present self than is her true face.
When it comes, the movie's conclusion is the result of the passive Christiane's reclaiming her free will when she spontaneously empathizes with that young shoplifter, her father's intended next victim. Regaining her sense of self-identity, she becomes an avenging angel who wreaks retribution on her father before he can do any further harm. Afterward, Christiane is at last free, but all alone except for the one white dove she carries. The last scene completes the movie's blurring of dream and nightmare as Christiane is swallowed up by the darkness and fog like a vanishing wraith.