Eyes Without a Face, originally considered a critical and commercial flop, has now acquired a cult status as one of the most stylish films ever made. This is a film where the protagonist does not possess a face due to scarification so bad, that it is referred to by some as a “gaping wound”; where someone’s facial tissue, unbeknownst to them, is removed like skin off a Christmas turkey; and where the main anti-hero gets his comeuppance by being mauled to death by a pack of dogs. Not bad, eh? Yet despite all of this gruesomeness we cannot look away from Christiane’s somnolent movements as she almost levitates in her Givenchy gowns through the eerie vastness of the mansion, or the mad anguish of her father, Dr Génessier, caught in a web of desperate resolve to achieve the unachievable. Indeed, the most ugly and horrific aspects of the film are not presented to us visually, and it is fitting that we are so enchanted by its aesthetics, as the real horror lies below what is visible – like Christiane’s face under her mask.
It is undeniable that Eyes Without a Face is an aesthetic marvel. With its noir-strangeness and ethereal spookiness, it is reminiscent of fashion photography in its liminal balancing between the beautiful and the grotesque. Although Christiane’s mask is meant to hide the unsightliness of her face, it is nevertheless clinically beautiful in its porcelain-like perfection and rigidity. Even when we see Christiane’s “normal” face – or the close approximation to it, borrowed from poor Edna Grüber – it is eerily similar to the mask, blending the real and the uncanny. This mask also enables the viewer to submit to the hypnotism of Christiane’s eyes, and to become enamoured by her vulnerability and profound tragedy, thereby inadvertently forgiving and forgetting her own participation in the mutilation of innocent young women. Similarly, the gruesome conclusion of the film is overshadowed by the beauty of Christine’s liberation, her near transformation into one of the doves that she releases. Beauty and horror go hand in hand, and as we see from Christiane’s progressively decaying face, the line separating the two is perilously permeable.
The real horror, however, is not directly visible to the viewer. The film is not shy with its presentation of gore, but it is distinctly anatomical. Christiane’s wound, the rot that sets in after an unsuccessful transplant, the operation where we see facial tissue wobble like jelly, even her father’s mauled face and Edna’s tastefully bloodless suicide; all of these images are shocking but would not be out of place in a medical text book, and considering that this is a film about plastic surgery, one should not be holding these images as the pinnacle of horror.
What remains more frightening is the unknown, the unseen and the unspoken. The film begins with the disposal and subsequent discovery of a girl’s mutilated corpse. Dr Génessier – intent on covering up his involvement –identifies it as his daughter’s, before the girl’s own father is able to lay eyes on it. Although Mr Tessot is told that the dead body isn’t his daughter, he is distraught regardless. Dr Génessier coldly dismisses his pleas for sympathy, stating that he shouldn’t have to comfort him since he can still have hope. However, what causes Mr Tessot to despair is the unknown; he cannot see his daughter and thus lacks closure, inevitably being a slave to mystery. This horror increases in intensity given the dramatic irony in this situation, for we are aware that Dr Génessier is deliberately condemning him to a lifetime of torture and is himself responsible for the tragedy.
Dr Génessier seems to embody the essence of horror in this film. A doctor, who has forsaken all of the medical and nonmedical ethics in existence, he gradually loses his grip on reality. His goal – to restore his daughter’s face – is laudable, yet as the film progresses, we begin to wonder whether he is doing it more in order to display his own mastery rather than for the sake of his daughter. This speculation becomes more plausible when Christiane rebels against him, releasing all of the dogs and doves that he uses for experiments with defiant gusto; all after she sets free the main victim – the abducted Paulette. Poignantly, Christiane feels great affinity with these dogs, begging her father’s assistant Louise “to put [her] down like a dog” which is suffering after a botched experiment, thereby identifying herself as an experiment rather than a daughter.
Dr Génessier’s experiment on his daughter are part of the beloved science fiction trope of playing god. Along with primarily Soviet classics as Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dogand Belyaev’s Professor Dowell’s Head, this story explores the dangers of medical hubris and the slippery slope of good intentions. Dr Génessier is not inherently an evil person, but his folly and obsession lead him to turn away from his own humanity. As he tosses his coat on a cross while desecrating the Tessot girl’s tomb by using it to dispose of Edna’s remains, he is hiding from God, or any moral judgement, sinking further into darkness. Thus, we can no longer identify with or see him as human, for his actions have gone beyond his intentions or any human comprehension. Tentatively, he reminds me of the Nazi doctor Eduard Pernkopf, whose Topographic Anatomy of Manis an example of a medical work that transgresses a whole host of medical and moral ethics. Although his intentions may have been good (if indeed we can use this word to refer to his anatomical research), the execution and the implications of this work – the dissection of concentration camp prisoners – means that he has forsaken anything humane for the sake of a grand idea.
The nucleus of the horror is contained in the character of Christiane. At first our sense of terror is aroused by her hidden face, initially hidden by her pillow or simply out of the shot, and then covered up by the lifeless mask. This sense of the unknown is almost worse than the actual display of gruesomeness, for although the reveal of Christiane’s face is set up to be a nightmarish vision seen through the eyes of the drugged-up Edna, it’s physical distortion is not nearly as horrific as our imagination of it, or, more importantly, what lies beneath that face. It is easy to forget among all of this medical drama that Christiane is a human being, a young girl whose entire life has been destroyed. Without her face, she is disembodied – a voice from the past breathing down the telephone to her ex-fiancé. Through her father’s dubious dealings, her very existence in this world is erased and she is considered dead. Yet she is still very much alive, with a life that is contained and constrained by the mask and only visible in her expressive eyes. Hers is the life of utmost horror, which we are never allowed, or are able, to see; and there lies the true terror of the film, in the body that is simultaneously denied both an existence and death.