The 13th Floor

EYES WITHOUT A FACE: The Thin Veil of Illusion

EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960) is a film not only about a deranged doctor kidnapping and disfiguring women, it’s also about a father’s love for his daughter and a quest for repentance. There is a duality to the film — a horrific fable that floats between fantasy and reality.

Aesthetically, director Georges Franju combines two distinct styles: dark and gritty exterior landscapes and flat, artificial interior scenes. It belongs somewhere between a French art film and a trashy horror flick. EYES’ greatness comes from its ability to occupy those spaces equally and successfully; those looking for the artistry and classicism informed by Franju’s cinephilia and those looking for graphic face transplants will be equally satisfied.

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There are no protagonists in the film… at least, none that matter. The entire first hour (2/3 of the total film) is spent with villains — but we are not limited to scenes that prove their evilness; we see their humanity as well. It is only in the last third of the film that “the good guys” even begin to suspect that there is a demented killer on the loose; for a while there, it seems no one is actually going to stop this murder spree.

The film’s priorities, in other words, are skewed from Classical Narrative traditions. Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) should be a cackling lunatic, deforming innocents with relish, not a grieving father doing whatever it takes to restore his daughter to her former beauty.

There are two scenes here that make it very difficult to completely write off his character as insane. The first is when Dr. Genessier visits a young patient in his hospital, a boy who inexplicably doesn’t understand how to count. Brasseur plays the scene with genuine concern; there is a clear connection with the boy, and his ailment has Dr. Genessier perplexed. Why is this scene in the movie? It does nothing to progress the plot, it’s a complete detour, and comes right before the climax — just when the narrative should be picking up speed. This is a “character moment” — a quick tangent to further develop a sympathetic character.

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The second scene comes a short while later: Dr. Genessier is sitting behind his desk, emotionally and physically exhausted. The weight of the situation and his repeated failures have left him hopeless. Even with Paulette (his next victim) lined up, giving him a chance to try again, he is shown defeated. We feel bad for him. He is much more sympathetic than we’re used to our psychos being… and this is the type of subversion Franju is working with.

The surgery scene is the only real horror set piece in the film; coming at the halfway point, it is six minutes of cringe-worthy tension as we witness the slow and procedural removal of a woman’s face. This is not a patient being operated on; this is a young woman who has been abducted… but the presentation of the scene is downright clinical. Flagrant medical inaccuracies aside, it feels like medical schools could use the scene in their curriculum.

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In his direction, Franju is detached from the proceedings; he is neutral. He doesn’t guide the viewer on how to feel about what’s happening on screen. By presenting the surgery explicitly, and without pushing the gruesomeness into exploitation, the viewer is left in the uncomfortable position of deciding for themselves whether to be morbidly fascinated or disgusted.

The secret ingredient in this scene is the lack of music; whereas most musical scores create a buffer between audience and film — an element of reassurance that we’re just watching a movie — Franju denies us that comfort. We hear the stretching of rubber gloves, whispered requests for scalpels and forceps, and Dr. Genessier’s open-mouthed breathing… and that’s it. We are in that room watching and listening; the veil of illusion is uncomfortably thin.

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The “Uncanny Valley” is a way to describe the unease experienced when something comes extremely close to representing reality while still being understood as unnatural. The quotient for this unease in the film is high, and not just because of Christiane’s mask. This mask is really effective — both because you can easily forget that she’s wearing one, and because Edith Scob’s performance is allowed to come through the eyes. Granted, her body language and costume add a lot to her ethereal and tormented presence, but it is her titular eyes that speak volumes.

The mask is so good, one spends most of the time trying to find where it ends and Christiane begins — which is the very definition of the Uncanny Valley. But it is also the mix of stage and location shooting, the inversion of sympathy between hero and villain, the amalgam of surrealism and realism, and the moral ambiguity that create an experience of instability. It’s this sophisticated duality that keeps EYES WITHOUT A FACE from being reduced to the drive-in schlock it easily could have been.

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