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A frozen fairy tale: identity and isolation in ‘Eyes Without a Face’ (1960)

*In memory of French film actress Edith Scob

Although often referred to as a dark, gothic fairy tale, Georges Franju’s 1960 film Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage) is perhaps more aptly described as a frozen, static fairy tale. While the nadir of the traditional fable is a brief moment of terror – a temporary imprisonment in an impenetrable turret, a fleeting enchantment that screens an arrogant prince behind a veneer of monstrosity – in Eyes Without a Face the descent into darkness and the evacuation of hope is perpetual, inescapable and without end.

The film centres around a young woman named Christiane (Édith Scob, who passed away earlier this week). The daughter of a prominent Parisian doctor, Christiane has been confined to their opulent suburban mansion following a car accident in which her face was irreparably disfigured. An arrogant and controlling figure, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is obsessed with restoring his daughter’s shattered beauty, performing experimental skin grafts on the dogs he keeps caged in his laboratory, before repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempting to replace Christiane’s ruined face with those of young women abducted from the streets of Paris.

While this premise may evoke images of a cackling mad scientist conducting fiendish experiments on voluptuous maidens imprisoned within his remote house of horrors, the film’s melancholic tone and its intensely surreal, dreamlike iconography undercut its sensational content. Despite being released as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus in the United States – where it appeared as part of a double feature alongside The Monster – Franju’s film is a fundamentally empathetic work that ruminates on questions of identity and freedom.

American poster for “The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus”

Although Eyes Without a Face infamously features an excruciating, uncut six-minute sequence in which Génessier removes the face of a sedated captive in order to graft it onto that of his daughter, the film is unsettling not because of its gore or its admittedly limited violence. Rather, Eyes Without a Face is disturbing precisely because of the tragic position of Christiane. Trapped within her father’s isolated mansion, Christiane is like the archetypal fairy-tale princess who is principally confined to the topmost room of the imposing structure. Her face destroyed and perpetually hidden behind an immobile white mask, Christiane exists in a liminal space between life and death.

Her scarred visage has effaced her identity and pushed her to the borders of society. Considered legally dead, because her father has staged her death in order to continue his experiments undisturbed, Christiane has also undergone a kind of social death. Her disfigurement has isolated her from the wider world, and the once expansive existence of a beautiful young woman has shrunk to encompass nothing beyond the confines of her house. Christiane is a ghost, a spirit who, while physically alive, nevertheless exists in solitary afterlife comprised of empty rooms and lonely corridors.

Wandering the immense mansion alone in her stark white mask and long nightgown, Christiane exemplifies ghostliness. For all intents and purposes, she is dead, yet she is unable to die. She moves slowly and tentatively, gliding through the corridors of a home that no longer seems comforting or safe. Truly mesmerising, Édith Scob is delicate and spectral. She touches the familiar objects of her once promising life as though recalling an existence that ceased centuries ago. When she calls her fiancé, Jacques (François Guérin), pausing silently or whispering his name through the telephone, it appears as though she is contacting him from some intangible netherworld; a tiny, fragile ghost attempting to reach across the unfathomable divide that separates the living from the dead.

Christiane seems frozen in time. Trapped within her own living death, a spirit who cannot move on, she is also caught in an eternal state of childishness. Christiane is not only unable to die, but she is also unable to grow up. In a truly wonderful episode of The Projection Booth podcast dedicated to the film, the critic and author Alexandra West notes how Christiane’s life and the parameters of her existence are fundamentally circumscribed by her father. Even before her accident, Christiane seems to have been an extraordinarily sheltered young woman. Her fiancé is her father’s protégé, and the engagement was more than likely arranged by him. Christiane is innocent, her bedroom that of a child rather than a young woman, while the painting of her that hangs above the mantlepiece of her home features Christiane adorned in the symbolic trappings of innocence: wearing a long white dress and smiling serenely. She is portrayed with a dove perched delicately on her gloved hand.

Even after her accident, when her youthful beauty has been destroyed, Christiane’s father appears obsessed with preserving this state of childish innocence. The mask he procures for her is pure white, like plaster or alabaster. When he finds her lying prone on her bed without the mask, he chastises her and reminds her that she must get into the habit of wearing it at all times. Clearly, Christiane’s ruined face is a reminder of the fragility of beauty, the capacity of time and circumstance to mar innocence, and so her father insists that she wear the mask.

Its frozen white features are, for him, a petrified mask of innocence, a rigid statue that, like the mythical sculptor Pygmalion, Génessier comes to love more than reality. Christiane’s protracted childhood is also reinforced by her relationship with her father’s mistress/secretary, Louise (Alida Valli). While the true nature of Louise’s entanglement with Génessier remains ambiguous, we are informed that Louise “owes” her face to his surgical prowess. And although clearly devoted to Génessier, Louise also expresses a profound, almost maternal love for Christiane. It is Louise who comforts the girl, brings her food and tenderly brushes her hair. Despite transforming into a seemingly remorseless predator when stalking the streets of Paris in search of new girls for Génessier to use in his experiments, Louise dotes on Christiane like a mother. This strange, almost incongruous, affection solidifies the sense that the three central characters inhabit a perverse familial structure in which Christiane is perpetually confined to the role of child, unable to grow or move forward.

Georges Franju, although perhaps less well known than some of his post-war contemporaries, indelibly impacted twentieth-century French cinema. He was the co-founder, alongside Henri Langlois, of the Cinematheque Française and he directed over twenty films, including the disturbing slaughterhouse documentary Blood of Beasts (Le Sang des bêtes, 1949). According to Adam Lowenstein, Blood of the Beasts displays Franju’s avowed desire to imbricate “perceptions of the familiar with those of the unfamiliar.”  However, this tension between familiar and unfamiliar is also evident in Eyes Without a Face. The mundane, decidedly quotidian environs of the Parisian banlieues (suburbs) are imbued with an alienating strangeness.

As Christiane floats through the seemingly infinite corridors and the silent, empty rooms of a house that must once have been a place of comfort and warmth, there is a profound sense of the uncanny. The home that Christiane shares with her father, where she must have once brought her fiancé, Jacques, before dates or sat with her family around the Christmas tree, has now become a tomb, a haunted house in which she is the single, solitary spectre. The mundane trappings of home – the girlish bedroom, the dining room, the familiar hallways and staircases – are all rendered fantastic as Christiane’s spectral presence drifts diaphanously through darkened corridors. Consequently, while both Louise and Génessier exude menace, much of the film’s uncanniness derives from Édith Scob’s astoundingly unsettling performance. As Christiane, Scob embodies spectrality; she moves silently and tentatively through the often-deserted house.

In the absence of Louise and her father, she explores the laboratory as well as areas of the house that are officially off limits to her wandering, restless gaze. Alone in the immense mansion, Christiane searches the house in almost total silence. In her isolation she has no one to speak to, while her movements are so gentle and ephemeral that she makes almost no sound as she walks. It is this aspect of Scob’s performance, her astounding capacity to play in and make meaning out of silence, that is most astounding. For much of the film, Scob doesn’t speak. She remains mute but manages to convey an extraordinary depth of emotion. In this way, Scob recalls the great actresses of the silent era, expressing a whole range of complex emotions without uttering a word. More striking still, not only does Scob speak very rarely, she is also significantly more constrained than her silent era forebearers. Unlike her predecessors, Scob cannot use facial expressions to convey feeling. Instead, she uses only her eyes; the fragile, simplicity of her gestures; and the tentative, uncertain movements of her body.

Thematically, Eyes Without a Face is closely aligned with the “chamber of horrors” tradition of French terror. From the fairy tales of Charles Perrault to the sensational torture chambers of the nineteenth-century Grand-Guignol and early silent films like Georges Méliès’ Bluebeard (1901), hidden horror is enduring preoccupation of the French fantastic. Yet, in many ways, Eyes Without a Face is also firmly enmeshed in the unique socio-cultural moment of post-war France. Produced in a nation still scarred by the trauma of the Second World War and protracted German occupation, Eyes Without a Face alludes both directly and indirectly to a host of painful memories and new anxieties, from Nazi human experimentation and wartime mutilations to nascent fears about a loss of parental control and the potentially violent rebellion of the young.

In his article on post-war facial reconstruction, Stefanos Geroulanos connects the images of facial surgery and skin grafting that proliferate throughout Franju’s film to the earlier atrocities of World War I and its thousands of facially scarred soldiers, mutilated in the unprecedented brutality of modern trench warfare. Certainly, the parallels between Christiane’s facial reconstruction surgery and the First World War development of plastic surgery are undeniable. There is also an uncanny resemblance between Christiane’s immovable mask and the rubber or metallic facial prostheses worn by heavily mutilated World War I veterans. For Geroulanos, the development of reconstructive surgery and skin grafting techniques after World War I exemplifies the multitudinous ways in which individuals are constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed by modern technology.

Christiane’s accident and disfigurement, as well as her father’s multiple attempts to reconstitute her shattered face, likewise exemplify the destructive power of modernity. She is injured in an automobile accident: wounded and destroyed by that ubiquitous symbol of post-war progress and affluence, the car. Contemporary technology is responsible for her facial injures and for the concomitant negation of herself. At the same time, her father’s attempts to restore her beauty also serve to rob Christiane of her identity, not merely because they repeatedly fail, but because in subjecting the girl to repeated surgeries, she becomes a subject of the medical gaze, a scientific problem to be solved, rather than an individual in her own right.

The loss of her face is, for Christiane, a loss of identity and a mutilation of her selfhood. Not only is the face she had known irrevocably destroyed, shattering her connection to a physical manifestation of her selfhood, she is also screened from the public gaze behind her immovable mask. Moreover, she is forbidden from viewing her own face in the mirror, with all the reflective surfaces in the house having been removed or covered. Unable to see her own reflection, Christiane cannot conceptualise her own physicality and as such cannot orientate herself in the world. She becomes detached, removed from her own corporeality.

In the writings of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, we find something of an explanation for this. Lacan, a disciple of Sigmund Freud, claims that as infants we all pass through a phase in which an external image of the physical body (as reflected in a mirror, or embodied in the form of a parent or caregiver) provides us with our first, most fundamental conception of the self. Although Lacan claims that the psychic response to this “mirror stage” leads to a lifelong anguish because the first vision of the self-glimpsed in reflected form will always appear more cohesive than the actual experience of our own unwieldy bodies, it is important to note the centrality of the reflection in the early stages of identity formation. Lacking the ability to see herself, either in a mirror or in the eyes of another, Christiane becomes increasingly disconnected from any sense of her own identity or her position in the world.

Forbidden to view her reflection, and with all the mirrors in the house confiscated or obscured, Christiane can only catch brief glimpses of her now unrecognisable face as they are presented in the distorted surfaces of windows and knife blades. Even when one of her father’s transplants succeeds temporarily, Christiane is disorientated by her new face. She describes the experience of gazing at herself as akin to “seeing someone who looks like me, returning from far away”. The identity she had formed in response to apprehending her previous appearance reflected in a mirror no longer holds true because that person has vanished, and that face is no more.

Elaborating on the ontological and semantic relationship between the face and identity, Stefanos Geroulanos points out that, just as in English, the word visage holds a second meaning in French. It does not just refer to the face. However, unlike English, where visage is a relatively uncommon word and so seems affected, the French word face has more formal and more technical connotations. Therefore, visage is the more common term and is used to describe both the physical feature, the face, and the character of the individual behind that face.

Yet, while the connection between face and identity is closely interwoven for all human subjects, it can be argued that for women this association between physical exterior and psychical interior is even more vital. Women, after all, are regularly reduced to their corporeality in a way that men are not. The French feminist Simone De Beauvoir famously argued in The Second Sex (1949) that while man is conceived of as a thinking, perceiving subject, woman is always the passive, inessential object:

For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute – she is the Other.”

Thus, while man is perceived as a rational, intellectual subject, woman is merely a body. She is not a mind, but a façade. When that façade is cracked or degraded in some way, she ceases to have value or purpose. There is always, then, a more intense relationship between a woman’s physicality and her identity. Women are conflated with their corporeal being in a way that men are not, because men are associated with attributes other than physical appearance; men can possess traits like power, intellect, rationality, creativity.

Consequently, they are not reduced to a mere body in the same way that women are. Men can transcend transcend physicality in away that women cannot, while women remain invariably tethered to the physical. This link between a woman’s physical appearance and her sense of self is perhaps most brutally illustrated in Eyes Without a Face when Edna, the young woman kidnapped by Génessier so that he can graft her face onto his daughter, awakens from her sedition and attempts to flee the mansion. She is almost successful in eluding the doctor, but chooses to commit suicide upon seeing a reflection of her own heavily bandaged face.

There is a hopelessness to Eyes Without a Face that seems to belie its frequent categorisation as a fairy tale. There is no reversal of Christiane’s situation: her face is not repaired, her father does not receive the justice he so richly deserves, the dark enchantment that has destroyed Christiane’s face is not broken and her prince never comes to her rescue. Instead, Christiane merely detaches herself further from reality and wanders into a world of her own making. In the final moments of the film, she frees herself and liberates her father’s imprisoned dogs, along with a cage filled with birds.

The newly liberated dogs maul her father to death, his scientific hubris finally meeting its inevitable ironic end. As if in a dream, Christiane walks out into the darkened forest, surrounded by the howling of dogs and with a dove perched precariously on her hand. In this instance, Christiane looks almost exactly like the painting that hangs in pride of place over her father’s mantlepiece, with the exception, of course, of her pale, white mask. Here, it seems that Christiane has recreated the painting on her own terms. No longer an image of the idealized innocence prized by her father, she has become, at least to a degree, an active agent. She abandons her father’s house and, in doing so, flees into the wilderness.

While there is no hope of happiness or resolution for Christiane, there is a sense of respite. Earlier in the film, the only moment of joy Christiane had known was when she snuck into her father’s laboratory and cuddled his caged dogs. Ostracised by society and objectified by the scientific gaze, the only acceptance and comfort Christiane has felt since her accident has derived from the innocent love of animals. It is appropriate, then, that while the spell that holds Christiane captive behind her implacable mask can never be broken, she is at least able to find peace in nature.

Eyes Without a Face is a surreal and melancholic film. It lingers long after the final credits roll. However, what remains in the aftermath of a viewing is not the memory of painstakingly detailed facial surgeries, or even the lurid premise of an ostensibly distinguished doctor abducting women from the Parisian streets. In the end, what stays with the viewer is the image of Christiane walking slowly into the night, the delicate tragedy conveyed so empathically by Édith Scob’s quiet, measured movements, and the astounding capacity of an actress to evoke so much emotion from behind the enigmatic blankness of a white mask.

About Miranda Corcoran

Miranda Corcoran currently teaches American literature in University College Cork, Ireland. Her research interests include Cold-War literature, genre fiction, literature and psychology, and popular culture. She also enjoys researching and writing about topics related to horror, the supernatural and witchcraft.

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