Eyes Without a Face
Dr. Génessier is riddled with guilt after an accident that he caused disfigures the face of his daughter, the once beautiful Christiane, who outsiders believe is dead. Dr. Génessier, along with accomplice and laboratory assistant Louise, kidnaps young women and brings them to the Génessier mansion. After rendering his victims unconscious, Dr. Génessier removes their faces and attempts to graft them on to Christiane's.
Eyes Without A Face (1960) by Tova Gannana for Faraway Entertainment
In Andre Bazin’s 1952 essay on Italian Neorealism we read,“Indeed, art aims to go beyond reality, not to reproduce it. And this is even truer of film because of its technical realism, its ability to reproduce reality so easily.” Stories taken from real life are rendered as fiction; they are a re-creation of events. We know all this and yet what we see on the screen we believe. The early German films relied on lighting. Casting shadows created the feeling the film itself was alive. Films like art are one of humankind's great creations, a contribution back to the universe for being created. Bazin began his 1951 essay, “Cinema and Theology,” with the line, “The Cinema has always been interested in God.” Bazin wrote about the relationship between man and God depicted in film, about power and punishment, miracles and being saved. In Eyes Without A Face (1960), Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) has a reputation in Paris. He may not be known at the Café de Flore, but where there are titles and money he is. Like a vulture, Génessier circles high above in the highest Parisian circles. No surprise when he spares no one in order to get what he wants, a new face for his daughter whose face was disfigured in a car crash caused by him. Godlike to himself, he doesn't see the humanity in other people. Genessier values the ways others can be of value to him.
Eyes Without A Face begins at night with a car on the road and a nervous driver behind the wheel. Louise (Alida Valli) wears a pearl choker at her throat. In the back seat is the body of a young woman disguised in a fedora and a trench coat. The young woman, with no face, has on no shoes. The way she is dragged to the river by Louise once the car is parked shows how important she must have been. Eyes Without A Face is about the faceless, the nameless, the ones whose bodies throughout history have been used and discarded when no longer useful. It is about a father not motivated by love but obsessed with control. Determined to fix what he has broken, he takes without asking. Eyes Without A Face is about how a body can turn into just parts. Génessier and his secretary Louise work as a team. She is indebted to him for fixing her face. Her debt allows her to do horrific things. At his estate Génessier keeps dogs of many breeds in concrete cages. White doves are kept in the basement. These animals who want long walks and fresh air are denied their freedom. He keeps them because he can. Society assumes Genessier is a great important doctor, a respected citizen. A mother asks him to save her young son's eyesight. Genessier saves his true character for his personal operating room where he uses his scalpel to remove the faces of the young women Louise has kidnapped for him and etherized on his table.
Edna Grüber (Juliette Mayniel), a student with no connections arrives in Paris. She needs a place to live and is picked up by Louise with the promise of a room to rent. Edna’s friend noticed that Louise wears a pearl choker; she later tells this to the police. As Louise drives Edna farther out of Paris the tension builds. Louise last drove with a dead girl in the backseat. In front, Edna senses that something is not right. She says nothing because she is polite. Instead, Edna turns her fear to hope. Her fear was founded. Edna ends up dead. Doctor Génessier’s experiment is successful for the short time that his daughter Christiane’s (Édith Scob) tissue accepts Edna’s face as her own. Christiane wastes away in her room. She can’t leave because of the state of her face and what her father has told Paris about her fate in the car crash. Génessier does not raise his voice or his fists. His violence is in his mind. Christiane is his property the way his dogs are, the way Edna became.
One can’t participate in society without a face. One doesn’t need limbs, hair, some organs or even teeth. A face is like a heart or a brain. Like style, a face signifies individuality. Our faces are one of God’s greatest gifts. The idioms, eyes are the windows to the soul and the tongue is the strongest muscle in the body, tell us the significance of a face. The horror of Eyes Without A Face is that these young women could lose their faces and survive. Doctor Génessier doesn’t care if they live or die. One ends up in the river. One leaps from a window. To him, their fate is that he wanted their face. What happens to them after makes no difference. In 1960 plastic surgery as a cosmetic enhancement was taking off. To have a pointy nose, ears that were flat, eyelids that didn’t droop, were things people saved for and splurged on. What made us ourselves wasn’t celebrated. This too is a way our bodies are treated as parts. Today, advertisers use computer generated faces to sell us things. Sometimes we spot these fakes. They look too perfect, without warmth and style, faces without eyes. They are corporate tools; blood doesn’t flow through their veins.
Tova Gannana writes for the Seattle Art Museum Film Department and CSA Hitchcock.