Eyes without a Face: mad-scientist horror genre gets serious treatment with issues of control and identity

Georges Franju, “Eyes without a Face” / “Les yeux sans visage” (1959)

Lean and elegant in narrative style, this film treats a pulpy mad-scientist horror story in a credibly serious, in-your-face manner that extracts maximum horror from its subject. Shot in black-and-white, the presentation is crisp with some shots done from odd camera angles and features scenes emphasising contrasts in light and darkness that might recall German expressionist influences. The plot revolves around a triangle of Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a dedicated plastic surgeon who lost his wife years ago and nearly lost his daughter in separate accidents; Christiane (Edith Scob), the daughter, whose face is horribly disfigured in her accident which was caused by her father; and Louise (Alida Valli), the doctor’s loyal assistant, who procures young women for him so he can transplant their faces onto his daughter’s deformed face. Yep, folks, that’s the gruesome tale and in most other film-makers’ hands this would turn into a B-grade shock-horror mad-scientist flick complete with a hunchbacked assistant whose eyes don’t stop rolling in opposite directions; but under Franju’s direction, the story becomes minimal and the characters are readily recognisable people who become all the more horrifying by their thoughts, words and behaviour. In particular Louise is a chilling character as she combines a warm, caring manner, the presentation of a polished middle-class lady, a clinical attitude to the girls as they undergo surgery and a devotion to Dr Génessier that goes beyond unquestioning groupie worship.

The acting is exemplary: the actors playing the main characters portray them as complex people whose motives driving their extreme behaviour are understandable. Dr Génessier feels guilt for causing the accident that deformed his daughter’s face and most likely believes he must save her at all costs to preserve a living memory of his dead wife (so there’s a hint of necrophilia as well). His skill with the scalpel leads him to believe that he can repair his daughter’s face in spite of past transplants that have all failed as will the transplant of the face of Edna Grünberg (Juliette Mayniel) which is shown in the movie. There is a subtle message here about human pride and arrogance in one’s own abilities and skills, coupled with trust and belief in technology, to overcome and control nature; this is reinforced by Dr Génessier’s imprisonment of stray dogs in the basement of his country mansion, to be used as guinea pigs in his transplant experiments. As the deranged doctor, Brasseur gives a calm, controlled performance: in some scenes he is kind and reassuring to a small boy; in other scenes he is professional if abrupt in manner. As said before, Louise is chilling and creepy in her contradictions but we understand why: she received a face transplant from Dr Génessier previously and it was a success. Valli is more expressive in her role, giving just the slightest hint of malice and gushy-ness, yet it’s still a restrained perfomrance: viewers get a sense that she wants a committed relationship with Dr Génessier but is reluctant to pursue a romance while he is obsessed with fixing up his daughter Christiane.

Scob spends most of her onscreen time as Christiane peering through a blank white mask and her eyes do most of her acting: they’re usually sad but are sometimes terrified and, towards the end, angry. Viewers see she’s just as much a victim as Edna and all the other girls before her; not only is she under her father’s total control – he even blanks out her existence to her fiance Jacques (François Guérin) and the police authorities by pretending to identify a corpse as hers and staging her funeral – but she is forced to be an unwilling participant in his transplant experiments. You sense that Dr Génessier is using Christiane as a guinea pig for improving his technique and methods as he is with his dogs. An unexpected delay in Génessier’s next face-transplant operation after the failure of Edna’s transplanted face allows Christiane to set free the new victim and to release the dogs as well.

Much of the movie’s focus is on Christiane so in part it’s a psychological study of a woman who becomes troubled by her passive participation, however indirect, in other people’s murders and must decide if she wishes to stay complicit or do something and stop being a participant. Franju makes the decision easier for Christiane in a way: all her previous face transplants have been failures so future ones are likely to be failures too: and even Louise’s apparently successful transplant is no assurance. If anything, the successful transplant has chained Louise closely to Dr Génessier so she is no objective role model. An existentialist message can be said to exist here: a person’s identity and sense of being are as much dependent on action or non-action as they are on her background and endowments. By taking action, Christiane discovers freedom, at the cost perhaps of ever being able to rejoin normal society and seeing her fiance again. On another level that most people would understand, Christiane must choose between surface appearance and conventional notions of beauty on the one hand, and inner beauty or moral integrity on the other. Scob is ideal as the delicate Christiane: eerily resembling Mia Farrow in her “Rosemary’s Baby” days, and angelic with long, slim arms and wearing pale floaty dresses, she seems the perfectly ethereal and helpless victim.

In contrast to the sharp presentation which often emphasises the shadows under otherwise bland exteriors, the film’s mood is almost dream-like. The mansion where Christiane lives looks sinister and even features a dungeon of barking dogs, not to mention the room where the operations take place. Scenes of the face transplantation and the transformations of Edna’s face on Christiane as her body rejects the face can be very graphic and upsetting in their clinical nature though the shots are short and the edits quick. The music score by Maurice Jarre plays a significant role: jaunty, carnivalesque yet hard, the harpsichord tones trill a repeated riff constantly and maddeningly whenever Louise turns up in her car to prey on unsuspecting young women; the music changes at the end of the film to something softer. The support cast exists mainly to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the police and doctors as authority figures and saviours. The film appears sympathetic towards women as victims of men and patriarchial structures and instutions. It would be too much to read into the film a message that victims should try to empower themselves; Christiane seizes her chance only because her father is called away by a fortuitous police visit. I don’t see her as a champion for feminism as the decision she makes to free herself may be purely personal or existential but people are free to see her however they wish. However Christiane and Louise are interesting contrasts as women: the younger woman as passive yet ultimately self-directing, the older woman as an active agent in thrall to a male authority figure whose desires she anticipates.

The film is worth a look for its streamlined, almost artistic presentation and its examination of control, identity and existence in its skeletal plot and considered characterisations. Some viewers may find the pace very slow, at least until near the end where it picks up quickly with Christiane’s release of the dogs. The screenplay was adapted from a Jean Redon novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, those writers of the novel “D’Entre les Morts” on which the Alfred Hitchock movie “Vertigo” which deals with similar themes (control of women’s bodies by men, necrophilia, identity and existence) is based.

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