not in our stars, but in ourselves
31/52: A scary movie
There are many gaps in my cinematic knowledge, and the horror genre contains most of them. I try to fill these in, but I confess: I am a cowardy custard. Classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, just about anything by Dario Argento – even if they’re wildly over-the-top, I’m going to have to work up the nerve to watch them. (Or just get drunk.) I find body horror the most horrifying of all, however outlandish it might seem, and I try to avoid it where I can. Yes, I’ll get to it eventually, but…well…for this particular installment in the challenge, I thought I’d watch something creepy without being scary, per se. Eyes Without a Face is technically more creepy than scary, it’s true – but it’s the kind of film that seeps into your unconscious, the kind that you can’t escape. Many horror films rely on jump scares and sudden bursts of gore; Eyes Without a Face, rather than employing the killer-leaping-out-from-behind-the-bushes tactic, keeps you strapped in with your eyes wide open, along for the ride whether you want it or not.
Late one night, Louise (Alida Valli) is driving down a desolate road. There’s a limp passenger in her backseat, wearing a hat pulled low and a large trenchcoat. Louise pulls over when she reaches the riverside, and drags the body out. With some difficulty, she throws the corpse into the river. When the police find the body, they bring in two fathers of missing girls: a brilliant surgeon, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), and a downtrodden Joe Sixpack-type, M. Tessot (René Génin). Génessier identifies the body as belonging to his daughter, Christiane, and arranges a funeral for her. The police knew that Christiane had been severely disfigured in a car crash, with extreme lacerations to her face, and they understand why she might have wanted to kill herself. Nevertheless, they wonder at the clean surgical lines with which this corpse’s face had been removed. Lo and behold, Christiane Génessier (Edith Scob) is alive in her father’s massive home. She wears a stark white mask to hide her ruined face. Dr. Génessier, when he’s not performing questionable experiments on stray dogs, is determined to perform a heterograft: a medical procedure by which he transplants one woman’s face onto Christiane’s, so she can resume a normal life. He’s tried and failed several times before, and Christiane despairs of ever being free – either of her disfigurement or of her father. Louise assures her that her father can do it, because he repaired her face years ago – and the only scar she bears is on her neck, covered by a thick pearl choker that she wears all the time. As it turns out, Louise and Génessier have a system: Louise searches for young women with similar features and facial structure as Christiane once had and lures them to the Génessier home; Génessier drugs them and brings them to his secret operating room; and Louise acts as nurse while Génessier painstakingly cuts off the unwitting girl’s face, to be grafted onto Christiane’s.
This is truly one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen. Nightmare logic runs rampant here, and it’s not at all a surprise that the novel on which this is based was adapted for the screen by Boileau-Narcejac – the novelist/screenwriter team responsible for D’entres les morts (which you might know as a little film called Vertigo) and Les Diaboliques. With all of these apparent corpses coming back to life, the writers are like Edgar Allan Poe for the twentieth century: people tortured and haunted as much by their own guilt as the dead. In Eyes Without a Face, especially, it’s the precision that makes the story so terrifying. Leatherface can chase you with a chainsaw, Mrs. Bates can attack you in the shower with a chef’s knife; but what chance do you have if a deranged surgeon drugs you, fastens you to an operating table, and surgically removes your face? (And yes, you get to see the surgery in the film. It is harrowing.)
Georges Franju said that Eyes Without a Face isn’t quite a horror film in the traditional sense. Instead of horror, it’s more about “anguish…it’s a quieter mood than horror…more internal, more penetrating. It’s horror in homeopathic doses.” All the more terrifying for it. The French evidently love nothing more than combining poetry with horror – again, in the tradition of Poe, among others – and the stark precision of Eyes Without a Face lends it an uncanny quality that all the jump scares in the world couldn’t produce. We aren’t dealing with the theatrics of traditional serial killers. Franju plays deliberately on the kind of fear you feel when you consider the fictional crimes of Dr. Moreau, or the real crimes of Dr. Mengele. This is an advanced, metastasized form of madness. This is the kind that’s a hair’s breadth away from institutional policies in some parts of the world at some points in history.
As a bonus, Eyes Without a Face – like other Boileau-Narcejac works – tends to portray women entirely sympathetically, and men as anywhere from inept to evil. Génessier is insane and the police are useless. Christiane, on the other hand, is an intelligent and understandable person. She used to be prized for something – her beauty – that has been destroyed irrevocably. Louise, too, is a clever and calculating individual who visibly struggles with the staggering moral quandary in which Génessier places her. The victims we meet, too, are never presented as having done anything to deserve their plight: they were kind to a stranger when they shouldn’t have been, and they lose everything as a result.
And as another bonus, the dogs save the day in the end, sort of. It’s a bizarre finish to a genuinely unsettling film, but it has its own beauty and poetic justice. Christiane finds freedom. Will she kill herself? Will she rejoin the world of the living? Who knows. Whatever happens, it will be her choice, and not that of her father. There’s surely some sort of message in here about the patriarchy and the unnecessarily heavy importance placed on women’s physical appearance, and how a woman who’s either lost that or has decided it doesn’t matter one way or another can find personal liberation and autonomy – but you can tease that out for yourself when you watch the film.