By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
January 12, 2013
Editor’s Note: Every few weeks, we plan to review important or overlooked films from world cinema, specifically ones relate
d to the popular lit genres of science fiction, mystery, suspense, detective, love, romance, western, and others.
collection covers the gamut of film history from the 1890s to the present day,
but we’ll start in the middle. Our first film is from the 1950s — director
Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face from
In many ways, Eyes
Without a Face is the French Psycho.
Quite independently of each other, Hitchcock and Franju arrived
at the same kind of film, in the same year. Both films draw on pulp crime and film noir
influences. They both feature psychologically tormented protagonists. They both
capitalize on the ability of black-and-white to convey terror in a subtler and
more mythic way than color ever could. And in both films, there is a series of
graphic murders or attempted murders of young, beautiful women.
There are three main characters in the movie, while the rest
of the supporting cast are either victims or associates and police who run
around in circles not managing to solve the mystery of the young women’s
disappearances. Dr. Génessier (played stiffly but effectively by Pierre
Brasseur) has accidentally caused the disfigurement of his daughter’s face in a
motor vehicle wreck. He has been doing
organ transplantation experiments on dogs, and when the action of the film
commences, he has just botched an attempt to transplant the face onto his
daughter of an innocent girl he has kidnapped and killed in order to harvest
the transplantable face, the “heterograft.”
His assistant in the lab and his lure for the girls is his
loyal hench-woman, Louise (played by Alida Valli). The daughter, Christiane, is
the waif-like ingénue who fuels this drama.
Seen mostly wearing a white mask and having very few lines, she offers
up the most memorable images in the film. The role was the career peak of
actress Edith Scob, and she is unforgettable, even though you only see her real
face in a succession of very short scenes when one of the heterografts
(briefly) succeeds. She is an elfin beauty. Much of the power written into her
role comes from the contrast between the icy emotionlessness of her masked and
the few moments of emotion we get to see with her unmasked. In one affecting
scene, she cries with teardrops running down the mask, and in another series of
scenes we see the vacant despair in her eyes as her facial transplant
In the final moments of the film, when she finally takes
action to stop the horrific events unfolding around her, she moves like an
expressionless avenging angel, without saying a word, without being able to
grimace or crack a smile through her mask.
Earlier in the film, we are shown a painting of her, when she had a
face, with a white bird perched on her finger, reminiscent of Snow White. In
the final frame of the film she is shown surrounded by white birds, still in
her mask, but finally emotionally free from its bondage.
Both Eyes Without a Face and Psycho are disturbing works and would have been considered bloody and shocking in their day. But, while the bloodiness is no longer their main fascination, there is still a lot left to fascinate about each film. In fact, the chief impression one is left with after viewing Eyes Without a Face is its haunting imagery. Franju painstakingly sets up the kind of moments that live on as still frames in your memory: Dr. Génessier lifting the heterograft off the face of his victim; Christiane freeing the tortured dogs; and always that emotionless white mask with two holes for the faceless girl’s eyes.
One leaves the film feeling disturbed, but it takes a while to figure out why. Maybe it’s just that a story like this has no heroes. Pierre Boileau, of the writing team Boileau-Narcejac who wrote the adapted screenplay, explains that they were intent on creating a new kind of crime story. The old mold for crime stories involved a mystery that was then solved by a clever detective, and the emphasis was on the cleverness and intricacies of the crime plot and its solution. In this new type of story, the police can’t and don’t figure out the mystery. Boileau-Narcejac were responsible for either the novel basis or the screenplay for a triumvirate of masterpieces in the late 1950’s, all psychological suspense stories: Clouzot’s Diabolique, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. These are quirky, disturbing stories, more about aberrant psychology than about solving mystery puzzles.
As for moral ambiguity, how can one imagine a trio of persons more conflicted than the ones in this film? Dr. Génessier is motivated by love for his daughter, but he has no qualms about sacrificing innocent girls for their faces in order to save her. But there is a part of him that is still a caring physician. One scene depicts him caring for a child in the hospital and, out of concern, concealing the gravity of his disease from the boy’s mother. He acknowledges that he must succeed in his quest to perform a successful facial transplant, because he knows how much he has crossed the line by sacrificing innocent lives. And yet, his greed to achieve scientific conquest and his love for his daughter have become so obsessive that he goes right on torturing dogs and killing young women.
Likewise, the doctor’s assistant Louise is driven by blind love and devotion to the doctor, to the point where she is oblivious to the evils she is committing. She is grateful that Dr. Génessier successfully reconstructed her damaged face, and now she is apparently in love with him. She is so convinced that she is doing the right thing for the doctor and his daughter that when the daughter finally turns on her in the final moments of the movie, Louise’s wide-eyed expression of disbelief and confusion shows you how deeply her emotions have led her astray.
Finally, the daughter, Christiane, is so desirous of a new face that she is willing to turn a blind eye to her father’s transgressions on her behalf. What haunts the audience is that her emotionless mask seems to have stolen her sense of morality. When she briefly gets a new face, she is at her coldest and cruelest, because she has stolen it from another girl. The apotheosis of character development that caps this film is when Christiane manages to find her heart and soul, and her sense of moral purpose, after being forced back into the mask. The film ends with a masked Christiane among the white birds, paralleling the Christiane of the painting earlier in the film holding a white dove. She has regained her face, even as her father has failed to give her a successful heterograft.
These characters aren’t your traditional crime story villains. There are no heroes solving puzzles, only unanswered questions. But isn’t that the way it is in actual crimes? There is no Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or Ellery Queen to wrap things up into a neat little explanation. And there is often no justice to be found. The children of Sandy Hook will go unavenged, and, likely, nobody will ever truly understand their killer’s motives.
Eyes Without a Face (Le Yeux sans visage)
1959, in French with
Directed by Georges
Produced by Jules
by Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac, Jean Redon, Claude Sautet, from a novel by Jean Redon.
Music by Maurice
Cast: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Edith Scob