Monday, October 12, 2015

Eyes Without a Face

What a weird, perverse little movie is Eyes Without a Face (1960). The plot could have been the basis for a theatrical, over-the-top, mad-scientist piece of shlock, but instead, director Georges Franju presents a more restrained, poetic movie, a story that contemplates identity and how it's shaped.

Eyes Without a Face is about a renowned Paris doctor, Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), who has his assistant Louise (Alida Valli) kidnap young women so he can surgically remove their faces so he can attempt to attach their visage to his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), whose own face was disfigured in a car accident he caused. You can see how this material could have been the basis for a Hammer film starring the likes of Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing by focusing on the kidnappings and lingering on the bloody surgeries.

We do witness one of the surgeries and watch in relatively explicit detail as Genessier uses to a pencil to trace an outline along the edges of the lovely Edna's (Juliette Mayniel) face before taking a scalpel to the lines. Louise stands by and wipes off both the doctor's sweaty forehead and Edna's blood. We watch as the blade penetrates the soft, delicate flesh, and the doctor uses clamps to lift her face off, and even fifty-five years later, it's hard to watch. Thank God it's in black and white.

But overall, Eyes Without a Face does not linger on the violence and gore. Even the elements of a more traditional thriller - the suspicious fiance who investigates the doctor and the police searching for a killer - are downplayed and ultimately play little role in the drama. The eeriness of the film comes from its meditation on identity and how identity is linked to the face. Take Christiane. We only catch one brief, fuzzy, out-of-focus glance at her disfigured face (from the point of view of a woman about to be operated on by her father). For the most part, she wears a blank, white, expressionless mask. Without her face, she is essentially a non-entity, a living ghost kept away from society, locked away in her father's villa. She had hopes, dreams, a loving fiancé, all of it stripped away when she lost her face.

Her father, she says, has always tried to control everything: life, death, cars, patients, and her. Now, he keeps her away from society, tells the world at large she's dead, and places whatever image he wants on her for a face. When he gives her a new face (which ultimately does not take), he tells her she can be a whole person and have whole new papers, documents, background, and dreams. The unspoken subtext of the remark is that the who she was is figuratively dead.

So much of who we are is revealed on our face. How we are feeling, what we're thinking about,  if we're sick, and the physical traits that identify us as us to others can be conveyed with a look or a glance. Take that away, cover it up with a mask, and a person becomes an enigma. Who knows what dangerous thoughts or malicious designs a person is housing when you cover up their visage? Christiane's true motive, or moment of character, is not revealed until the very end. Does she approve what her father does for her? She's trapped physically and emotionally, unable to leave, unable to express herself.

The mask itself is a wonderful visual flourish. It looks human enough that it is unnerving to look at for any length of time. It's well into the Uncanny Valley; we're more bothered by how immobile and blank it looks than how almost lifelike it its. The shots of Christiane moving through the twisted halls and stairwells of the villa like some waif-like phantom are unnerving enough because of how surreal they look. Who needs added stalking scenes or chases? This is hypnotic.

The identity issues extend beyond Christiane. Louise, similarly, had her face restored by the doctor, and now, she is completely at his service. She assists his surgeries, accompanies him everywhere, and kidnaps women for him. And she's never wavering in her devotion. She's the one always assuring Christiane that this time, this time her father will succeed, and she never demonstrates any feelings of guilt or remorse over her role in the butchering of who knows how many women. Who she was before she met Genessier, we never learn, but she says she is proof he can give people their lives back. When Christiane stabs her in the throat, all she can do is ask why.

Meanwhile, Genessier's own face is like an unbroken mask. He never really betrays any emotion or hints at what he's thinking, hidden behind his beard and his glasses. The sole hint of an emotion is when he asks Louise to wipe his forehead during a surgery, but that could just mean it was hot, though she seemed all right. He's obsessed, singly focused on one thing, so it makes sense he remains rigid in his look. His fate at the hands of dogs has a certain poetic justice.

Ultimately, Christiane rejects her father's attempts to control him by setting free his latest captive. She can no longer accept that restoring her life is worth destroying someone else's life, but in doing so, by demonstrating her own guilt and resolve through actions, she proves she indeed has her own identity. It just can't be read on her face.

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