Thursday, November 02, 2006

Eyes Without A Face * Georges Franju * 1959 * France

In honor of Halloween, I decided to watch Georges Franju’s 1959 horror film, Eyes Without A Face. Ghastly yet poignant, the film tells the story of the controlling, obsessive Dr Génessier, who attempts to restore the face of his severely disfigured daughter, Christiane. He is driven by both guilt and hubris; it is implied that he caused the car wreck that mutilated her face, yet at the same time he seems hungry for fame and power, and ultimately desires to be known for performing a miracle.

Génessier’s methods are rather unorthodox: his assistant, Louise, lures young blond women off the streets of Paris to Génessier’s mansion on the outskirts of the city, where he knocks them out and attempts to graft their faces onto Christiane’s. Strangely sinister carnival music plays whenever Louise appears on scene, cultivating an unsettling mood.

The creepiness is further amplified at the doctor's home, a secluded Gothic mansion with winding staircases and maze-like hallways, revolving walls, and hidden operating rooms in the basement. As soon as the doctor pulls up to his driveway, the viewer is met with sounds of barking dogs in the distance (more subjects of Génessier’s experiments), which are constantly heard throughout the film.

However, it is the horrifying yet angelic image of Christiane that leaves the deepest impression. Her face is never shown, except in one shot when Edna, one of the kidnapped girls, briefly awakens to see Christiane gazing down at her. She appears blurry, likely owing to Edna’s drugged state, but one gets the idea that she looks like a monster; Edna's response is a high-pitched scream.

Most of the time, Christiane wears a mask that her father has fashioned for her, doubtless far more disturbing than her actual face. The mask is stoic, expressionless, and causes her to appear unnaturally serene, even when she is crying and wishing she were dead. At one point she says, “My face frightens me. My mask frightens me even more.”

Christiane eerily resembles a fragile porcelain doll, with her smooth white inexpressive mask, perfectly combed hair—which oddly resembles a wig—and pouffy dresses. She wanders through her house like a ghost, making silent phone calls to her ex-fiancée just to hear his voice. At other times she looks like a ghostly Snow White, an ethereal, delicate figure walking off into the darkness, birds perched on her fingers.

Eyes Without A Face is an anguishing story, as Christiane’s hopes are continuously raised, then crushed by her brutally undeterred father. Following a seemingly successful operation, we are shown a sequence of photographs, commented on by Génessier from off screen, depicting the gradual breakdown and ultimate death of the transplanted skin; with each new photograph, Christiane’s expression grows increasingly hopeless and despondent. Beyond the obvious abhorrences--i.e. the abduction and mutilation of anonymous blond women--an even deeper cruelty is revealed.

Perhaps what is most troubling is that the film falls uncomfortably within the realm of the plausible. There are no supernatural occurrences, only the cruel fixations of a dementedly heartbroken individual. The film is gruesome yet beautiful, surely surpassing its B-movie status.

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