Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face) is a transfixing bad dream about beauty and the parody of beauty. The mutilated Christiane (Edith Scob), her eyes staring out from a pale, expressionless mask, drifts from room to room like an elongated doll. Underneath the mask is a ruined face; Christiane’s father Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a surgeon, toils endlessly to get her a new face by any means necessary.
Part of the perversity of Eyes Without a Face is that Dr. Génessier is a mad scientist without quite being portrayed as one. He and his associate — Louise (Alida Valli), whose own face he once repaired — kidnap women who look enough like Christiane, remove their faces, and graft the thin meat onto Christiane’s skull. The horror and dark comedy of the film is that this plan is presented more or less neutrally. Génessier and Louise take no sadistic pleasure in capturing their prey; it’s just what has to be done. Meanwhile, Christiane moons around in the mirrorless house, catching sight of herself in any shiny surface (of which there are many in the movie, including Louise’s black raincoat), morosely listening to caged doves chirping. Like Maya Angelou, she knows why they sing.
Franju builds dread with long, slow, quiet takes — it seems to take half an hour for Dr. Génessier to make his journey up many flights of stairs to Christiane’s room the first time we see her. The movie will probably strike many modern horror fans as too sedate, but it’s a classic of twisted gothic enchantment. When Christiane goes to visit the dogs her father keeps penned up for experiments, something about her snuggling them while wearing a corpse-like mask is deeply unsettling. She has a dead face over a dead face, and part of her soul is dead, too. She has uneasily entered into Dr. Génessier’s mad scheme, hoping against hope that one of his transplant attempts will finally work and the murders can stop. When she finally is wearing the face of another woman (who seems to have been selected for her own masklike beauty), she sits at the dinner table afraid to work her muscles into an expression — “Don’t smile,” her father advises her.
Eyes Without a Face has been described as a comment on the folly of science, but it makes equal sense as a pre-feminist attack on surface beauty. It’s taken as a given that Christiane wouldn’t want to be ugly, that she wouldn’t have a problem wearing dead flesh (“I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing fur” several decades early?). That the film came from France, the epicenter of fashion, makes it almost transgressive in its equation of beauty and blood. In a sequence originally trimmed from the U.S. release, Dr. Génessier operates dispassionately on his latest captive, and the camera records it just as dispassionately, staring as the scalpel describes a bloody oval around the woman’s face and then as the doctor begins to peel the whole thing off. “Rather like a large orange,” a modern viewer might hear Dr. Hill from Re-Animator saying in his/her head.
The empty, frozen beauty here — Dr. Génessier’s house, the gowns by Givenchy, the fragrant self-regard of Paris itself — has its own chill, but the horror in Eyes Without a Face is mostly internal, not external, and all the more poetic for it. Franju recruited the nefarious duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (responsible for Diabolique and Vertigo among others) to adapt Jean Redon’s novel, and the scenario smells of their usual queasy blend of police procedural and obsessional guilt; the cops here fumble around and send a decoy almost to her doom — they don’t know they’re in Boileau/Narcejac territory and therefore irrelevant. They are there solely to reassure us (none too successfully) that there is some order, someone in charge, someone who can step in and punch madness in the throat. As it happens, the ultimate victim and catalyst for all this bloodshed takes the solution into her own slender hands. In the end, freedom meets chaos in a series of gorgeously evocative images. The dogs feed, the doves fly, and the living doll sweeps gracefully into the woods, the unknown. Eyes Without a Face reclaims beauty from horror’s grasp; the caged bird dares to claim the sky.