Paris, fame, fortune…what’s it all add up to?
This line by a minor character in Georges Franju’s haunting 1960 horror film Eyes Without a Face is to me like Paddy Chayefsky writing Network in 1976 without knowing that in the future we’d have the exploitation trash-o-vision of Jerry Springer or Howard Stern. As much as its insanely surreal story arch is what makes it so timeless, it’s also about the futility of atonement in the shattered relationship of a father and a daughter and thus becomes a movie so poetically cynical about the vanity of plastic surgery, especially in a genre known purely for blood splats, bare skin, unkillable villains and unmistakable clichés.
The film begins with a genius surgeon by the name of Docteur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) preaching the infinite possibilities of cosmetic surgery. He seems confident, his brilliance perhaps masked by arrogance but we soon learn the source of his moody behavior: his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), thought by many to have disappeared after a car accident, is actually being kept stowed away in a room at his mansion. Her face has been completely destroyed by the car accident he presumably caused, and because of this, he has devoted his private life to surgically removing the faces off young women that his assistant Lousie (Alida Valli) captures off the streets of Paris, attempting to give his daughter the normal life he feels so much guilt for taking away. As Génessier himself says: “If this were a success…God! You couldn’t put a price on it.” But there is no price, only the belief in the miracle that irreparable damage can possibly be repaired by the resilience of desperate medical experimentation.
For such ugly material the movies lush black and white cinematography through CinemaScope somehow finds a way to put me into a hypnotic trance every time I watch it. Eugen Schüfftan who photographed the film works perfectly with the way Franju directs the actors around the script that he and several others (Pierre Boileau, Pierre Gascar, Thomas Narcejac, Calude Sautet and Jean Redon) adapted from Redon’s novel of the same name. There are several lengthy scenes where there is no dialogue and these are some of the best and most crushing, like the moments Christiane has outside of her room, which is in most ways acting as a prison. She wanders slowly, and the lens follows her in the same style; without pure sympathy for her plight this scene might be just flat out boring, but the elements make it a depiction of overwhelming freedom simply done by taking a few steps around a luxurious house. The way Scob moves as Christiane, with equal parts hesitancy and curiosity is exactly what you’d expect from someone so devastated by the sudden change her life has taken.
Great scenes such as when she takes off her mask and feels a young girl’s face her father is preparing to remove (the shot is framed in eerie close up so all we see is her hands feeling the smoothness of her face) are complemented perfectly by quaint scenes where the camera follows Christiane as she plays with the dogs her father experiment’s on. In a world that doesn’t know she exists anymore, and one that would harshly judge her if they knew she did, the animals who hold nothing against her appearance serve as the only ones who can forgive her disfigurement in a society where exterior beauty is so emphasized. You can’t help but think of shows like Dr. 90210 or gossip magazines where writers drone on about nose jobs and tummy tucks and think that this movie had made such scathing commentary on the practice almost 50 years ago.
Many visual setups parallel themselves and still retain their effectiveness on a 2nd or 3rd go round; characters wandering spiritually adrift lost outside the estate and its surrounding forest, the lens patiently following, the triangular framing compositions in the police station or the devilish Louise smoking in her car, as we cut between her and the women she will soon help to make a faceless corpse or condemned to a lifetime of being a total outcast at the expense of someone else’s mistakes. The entire thing operates simultaneously as German expressionism in its rich use of the dark colors and shadow and a silent film in its use of the aforementioned snooping. That isn’t to say that everything is purely implied, considering for 1960 this film has terrifying surgery scene that will still manage to make your skin crawl. No special effects, no excessive gore, just pure cinema of characters doing whatever means possibly to rectify their shortcomings along with beauty and purity being so savagely destroyed before our eyes. It is in equal measures hard to watch and hard not to watch, grotesque and riveting.
All this moral play between the characters and the plot itself may seem the marks of something truly absurd and over the top (the score won’t help some dissenters of the picture in its consistent carnival-esque feel) but the performances maintain the incredible misery that Eyes Without a Face inhibits without becoming campy or comical. Scob creates an intriguing layer for Christiane by the reserved power of her acting, making her a tragic figure not only when she’s directly on screen (that unforgettable white porcelain mask helps, it apparently inspired John Carpenter for Halloween) but also when she’s off because basically everything people do in the film is to either remedy her broken life or to solve the mystery of her disappearance. Even when she is not in the frame, she is always there, behind every sigh of her father’s frustration and the inquiries of those who wonder about the baffling circumstances from which she vanished into thin air.
Brasseur as Docteur Génessier is in his constant sterness and monotone delivery somewhere between an obsessive, despicable monster for going to such extremes to further his brilliance but also sincere for when Franju films him in close up’s we can see, even in his silence, his deep belief that he might be able to save Christiane. We wonder if he comprehends the magnitude of the complications he’s weaved in feigning her death; even if he repairs her, can she ever truly be the same? What about her identity and the people that have moved on believing she had perished? Even alive, Christiane functions as a ghost a figure whose beauty her father will work to recreate at any cost.
Her surrogate mother is played by Valli in the form of Louise, a femme fatale of sorts in the film, whose exuberant innocence and charity mask her sinister dedication to the doctor’s project. Franju and his team give her a stellar secret (not a big twist per-se, just another pitch perfect added meaning) that seems to drive her motivation to the doctor and his daughter. No character runs purely on one track, even Doctur Génessier seems to have momentary delays to his steadfast perseverance; his sadness in one scene when he predicts a possibly grim diagnosis of a young boy at his office shows that he is a man generally wanting to help people and so insanely hurt when he can’t, especially when the one hurt is his daughter and he played a role in the ruin.
Even at a slim running time of a smidge under 90 minutes, the horror of Eyes Without a Face is endless with parts timeless horror craftsmanship and heartbreaking drama stemming from a relationship so frayed. You hope for redemption, that the disaster of the past can fade seamlessly into a revived future but Franju and crew keep everything wildly unpredictable but the eventual turns so graceful and sure even if they are horrifying to witness. At one point in the film, Christiane begins to cry, and the tears run out from her eyes and over the staleness of her mask; in this moment you see her insides screaming that they wish they were beautiful, that they long to come out and live again. But the tears run off and a little more of her and our hope dies, a person so alive is suddenly so dead. Her anguish is so apparent, but her face doesn’t move, like it’s frozen in a blank hell. When a singular segment of a film can be so unbelievably moving, there is no doubt that all the genres of cinema, even horror, have the ability to recharge optimism that the art of the moving image can never die.