AKA Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus [dubbed and edited version]
“I love images that make me dream, but I don’t like someone dreaming for me.” –Georges Franju
DIRECTED BY: Georges Franju
FEATURING: Edith Scob, Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli
PLOT: The face of the daughter of a brilliant plastic surgeon is horrifically scarred in an automobile accident. The doctor makes her pretend to be dead until she can be cured; she floats about his Gothic mansion wearing an expressionless face mask, accompanied by the howling of the dogs her father keeps in pens to perform skin grafting experiments on. When several pretty young girls go missing, the police and the girl’s fiancé start to suspect the doctor.
- Eyes Without a Face was adapted for film by the famous screenwriting team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who also co-wrote Les Diaboliques (1954) and Vertigo (1958), from a novel by Jean Redon.
- Director Georges Franju has stated that he was told to avoid blood (so as not to upset the French censors), animal cruelty (so as not to upset the English censors), and mad scientists (to avoid offending the German censors). Remarkably, all three of these elements appear in the final product, but the film did not run into censorship problems.
- The film did poorly on its initial release, partly because the surgical scene was so shocking and gruesome for its day. It was released in the US, in a dubbed and slightly edited version, as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, paired on a double bill with the strange but now nearly-forgotten exploitation flick The Manster.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The mask itself, the heart of the film. There are several other worthy candidates, including the haunting final scene with Christiane surrounded by freed birds. Also noteworthy is the facial transplant scene, which is in some ways the centerpiece of this film (and comes almost exactly at the midpoint). An anesthetized woman’s face is peeled off like the skin of a grape, in surprisingly graphic detail.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: At least until the very final scene, Eyes Without a Face is not obviously weird at all–in fact, much of Franju’s accomplishment is in making the fabulous, far-fetched story seems coldly clinical and real. But what gives the movie it’s staying power and makes it get under your skin is the strength of the simple images, particularly Christiane’s blank mask, which hides everything: both the horrors of her past, now written on her face in scar tissue, and her current motivations. The imagery seems to reach far beyond the confines of the story and speak to something deeper–but what? For this reason, the most common critical adjective used in conjunction with the film has been “poetic,” and the director Franju is most often compared to is Jean Cocteau.
Original French trailer for Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face)
COMMENTS: Eyes without a Face is a sinister variation on the Frankenstein theme that marked a new direction in horror films. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, who robs dead bodies from their graves to create monsters, Dr. Génessier is himself a sort of monster, one who robs the living of their bodies and sends them to their grave. Fifteen years after World War II, filmmakers finally seemed to be ready to forego supernatural themes and deal directly with the horrors that one man could inflict upon his fellows. 1960 was the year not only of Les Yeux Sans Visage, but also of Peeping Tom and Psycho, movies whose villains were mere mortals, like us, and more uncomfortably terrifying because of their humanity.
One thing that sets Eyes without a Face apart from those movies, however, is the fact that the killer is not given the comfortable excuse of insanity. Dr. Génessier kills women, not because he is a madman who isn’t responsible his actions, but out of love for his daughter, and also out of guilt. There is a powerful moral ambiguity, and a moral terror, in the evil actions of the main characters: we can understand why the doctor would sacrifice others to save his daughter, and why the suffering girl would be too weak-willed to resist his plan. And, we can’t be completely sure we wouldn’t choose the same path in their situation.
Eyes without a Face, although critically panned on release, influenced future horror films profoundly. It directly inspired a generally undistinguished branch of transplant movies (with titles like The Awful Dr. Orloff and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die) where mad doctors hunt living victims (always beautiful girls) and use them as fodder for their experiments. More indirectly, Christiane’s face mask, which makes it impossible to read her expressions, became the model for of the “faceless killer” of future slasher films. John Carpenter acknowledged that Michael Meyers’ blank white mask in Halloween was inspired by Christiane’s faceless visage. And of course, Michael Meyers quickly degenerated into slash-happy Jason Vorhees and his hockey mask.
Christiane’s mask is the key to Eyes without a Face‘s power. What makes her facade unsettling is not imagining what might be under it—we eventually get a glimpse at her maimed face anyway—but the fact that we cannot read her expression, and so we have no clue what she’s thinking or what she’s capable of. When she picks up a surgical scalpel and stares at the camera, with neither a smile nor a scowl visible, we have no way of gauging what might come next. And even when she is briefly freed from her porcelain prison by the skin graft, she still appears blank. Her face has no flexibility; she can hardly smile without risking damage to the still healing tissue. Her new face does not satisfy her, either: she feels that she is looking at someone else when she peers in the mirror. She thinks she is peering at someone “who comes from the Beyond.”
What makes Eyes without a Face weird is that it cries out for a symbolic or allegorical reading, but doesn’t actually suggest one. Many have tried to link the film to the horrors of Nazi medical experimentation; this is a theme that automatically pervades any European horror film of the period involving mad doctors, whether the author intended it to or not. Franju’s quote—“I love images that make me dream, but I don’t like someone dreaming for me”—suggests that the author’s intending “meaning” for the film was authentically Surrealist. That is to say, he deliberately limits himself to putting powerful, evocative images on the screen and letting them play against each other, without a didactic meaning attached to each. If these images resolve themselves into a meaning, great; if not, their power has not been abridged.
Still, there’s one allegorical reading of Eyes without a Face that seems screamingly obvious, although it’s one that has seldom been mentioned. That reading is the feminist one. The most important image in the film is the mask: a mask is something we wear to hide our true nature, our personality, from others. Christiane’s mask is blank: when she wears it, she projects no personality. Her motive for wearing the mask is to hide her ugliness. Her quest is the quest for beauty; until Christiane can regain her beauty, she will not be able to land her man, Jacques. Regaining Jacques’ love is the thing she desperately wants to achieve; restoring her face is only a means to that end. The quest for beauty—the traditional tool for women to gain status and value in society—has left the tragically unmarriageable Christiane a prisoner in her own home, afraid, and ashamed, to reveal her true identity to the world.
Contrast the character of Louise, who has had her lost beauty actually restored by Dr. Génessier. The result of winning this goal is that she becomes the doctor’s willing slave, gladly committing horrible atrocities in his name and for his purposes. In successfully completing her quest for beauty, she has only succeeded in destroying her own individuality and being absorbed into a man’s identity.
When Christiane realizes this, she rejects the way Louise has chosen, in the most direct way imaginable: by embedding a scalpel in her jugular. Then, having abandoned the futile and self-defeating quest for beauty and her aspiration for marriage as the only means of completing herself, Christiane is free to make her own uncertain way in the world. She frees the dogs and doves, her fellow creatures imprisoned in the dark manor, and sets off into the dark woods to find her own way.
I am fairly certain that any feminist allegory hidden in this narrative is by accident, exactly as Franju intended. And there are a few difficulties with the above interpretation, the most important being that Christiane does not abandon her mask once she frees herself. If the above is correct, then the last shot of the movie should have been an image of the porcelain mask abandoned on the forest floor as Christiane makes her way into the world, unencumbered by restrictive social notions that force her to hide who she truly is.
Perhaps I should simply follow Franju’s advice, and allow the images to dream for themselves.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…thanks to veteran cinematographer Eugene Schüfftan, Franju infused [the] pulp plotline with a brooding lyricism that had rarely been [seen] since the Expressionist heyday… Sharp as a scalpel, soft as a caress, this is a weird masterwork.” -David Parkinson, Empire (DVD)
IMDB ENTRY: Yeux Sans Visage, Les
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DVD INFO: As usual, The Criterion Collection has put out an excellent DVD (buy), although sadly there is no commentary track. Generous extras include clips of Franju discussing his work on a French television show and previously unseen stills. Most importantly, the DVD contains Franju’s 20 minute documentary, Le Sang des bêtes [Blood of the Beasts] (1949), a highly recommended, unflinching look inside Paris slaughterhouses that still has the power to shock while remaining strangely beautiful.