“And now you see these rabid creatures overtaken: they have fallen into sleep, abominations that they are, maidens in old age, ancient children, whom no god mixes with, nor man, nor beast, ever.” —Aeschylus, The Eumenides
1960 was a banner year for horror cinema: it unleashed upon the world such groundbreaking films as Hitchcock’s Psycho, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, Mario Bava’s La maschera del demonio (Black Sunday), and Roger Corman’s The House of Usher, as well as underrated classics like Hammer Horror’s The Brides of Dracula or the eerie US-UK coproduction The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel). It also marked the debut of Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960), which was released 55 years ago today in the United States, on October 24, 1962—just in time for Halloween—where it was marketed as a throwaway B movie and largely ignored. And though Eyes Without a Face is often described as a horror film, and includes such tropes as monstrous disfigurement, mad science, and the sinister kidnapping and murder of young women, this label isn’t entirely accurate.
Instead, the film belongs more firmly to the loose genre known as the fantastique, which combines horror, fantasy, melodrama, and science fiction, and is a staple of French cult literature and cinema. Not particularly known for their wealth of horror films (at least not until more recent phenomena like New French Extremity), the last few hundred years of French writers, artists, and filmmakers have spent more time exploring fantasy, fairy tale, and surrealism—though with certainly no shortage of terror and bloodshed—than relying solely on horror tropes. Seminal theorist and historian Tzvetan Todorov described and defined the fantastique in his book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach, where he emphasized the importance of the uncanny within the genre. Many of these tales are so unsettling, because it’s never apparent if events have supernatural or more rational, scientific explanations and the ensuing tension is the cause of much anxiety, even horror. His examples often center on women and female characters and the rupture caused by female sexuality.
In one of Todorov’s key examples, he writes, “Alvaro, the main character of Cazotte’s tale Le Diable Amoreux, lives for two months with a female being whom he believes to be an evil spirit: the devil or one of his henchmen. The way this being first appeared clearly suggests that she is a representative of the other world. But her specifically human (and what is more, feminine) behavior, and the real wounds she receives, seem, on the contrary, to prove that she is simply a woman, and a woman in love.” She is at once woman and monster, human and inhuman being, and this character type would appear through 18th and 19th century French literature, particularly during the fin-de-siecle, where female characters could be both monstrous and vulnerable at once. There is an implicit link back to fairy tales, such as those by Charles Perrault or Madame d’Aulnoy, and tales like the various iterations of Sleeping Beauty or Bluebeard are considered to be within the purvey of the fantastique. This loose female character type serves as something of an obvious forebear to the protagonist of Eyes Without a Face, Christiane (Edith Scob).
A similar sense of contradiction, of tension and conflict, is central to Christiane’s character. In “Postwar Facial Reconstruction: Georges Franju’s ‘Eyes Without a Face,’” historian Stefanos Geroulanos writes, “Christiane Genessier has become a living dead and hopes to regain the visage of an angel. A living dead because her face has been burnt and disfigured: now hidden in a home far from Paris, she must remain covered by a mask as dehumanizing as the tissue that lies beneath it. An angel because the sublime beauty she still hopes to get back in a face transplant—and will indeed momentarily get back—confirms her constant distance from the everyday human realm, and arrests all possibilities of a resolution to her drama.”
Though she has little dialogue and her character is responsible for precious little action throughout the course of the film, Christiane Génessier is nevertheless the axis around which events revolve. After a car accident that resulted in her apparent (and legal) death, her father, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) has hidden Christiane away in their remote family home an attempt to perfect face transplant surgery, which will allow her to live again. His assistant Louise (Alida Valli) is a success story for the doctor—she received a transplant of her own—but is reduced to the role of kidnapper and murderer; she lures young women from the city back to their countryside home to become unwilling facial donors. But the transplants fail, one after another, and Christiane begins to succumb to the profound isolation of her existence.
At its core, Eyes Without a Face is a mad science film, or at least a radical reinterpretation of one. Follow in the footsteps of British and American studios, French producers longed to create a national horror genre market of their own. In “Eyes Without a Face: The Unreal Reality,” author David Kalat writes, “In the later years of the 1950s, films like Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) had substantially increased the level of suspense, sexuality, and gore that people could expect from thrillers. French cineastes ate these gothic Technicolor visions up, demonstrating a hungry and largely untapped French market for horror movies. In 1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot pulled no punches in terrorizing filmgoers with Diabolique, but no French filmmaker had yet attempted a full-blooded horror picture of the kind being made so profitably in England and America.”
Franju and other filmmakers were warned away from mining the mad scientist trope to avoid offending West Germans eager to separate themselves from the memory of Nazi scientists, even though British cinema from this period was flooded with examples of nefarious uses of science and doctors gone deranged: The Gamma People (1956), Womaneater (1957), Corridors of Blood (1958), Fiend Without a Face (1958), and so on. In “Appearances to the Contrary: Eyes Without a Face,” Patrick McGrath argues that the film can be read not explicitly as mad science, but as the “domestic perverse,” because its emphasis is equally on the familial relationship at the heart of the film and the seemingly cold bond between Génessier and his daughter, which is motivated more by guilt than love. Part of Génessier’s monstrosity lies in his inability to emote and his reliance on experimentation and surgery. McGrath writes, “The imagery and language of the clinic are a staple of the mad-doctor story, and Franju milks it for all its inherently sinister potential. […] This is Franju’s heart of darkness. The film builds to this glimpse of monstrosity, this perversion of Western science—or perhaps the logical outcome of that science, a meddling in mysteries that ought to be the preserve of God alone.”
Certainly surgery-as-horror and the terror of medical experimentation became a main theme of horror cinema in various nations after the atrocities of WWI through titles like Orlacs Hände (1924), Frankenstein (1931), and Mad Love (1935), among others. Though known for playing Dracula, Bela Lugosi was actually cast in this role far more than he played a vampire, and was a mad scientists or doctor in films like Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), The Phantom Creeps (1939), The Devil Bat (1940), and so on. But Geroulanos argues that facial trauma is a distinctly French preoccupation, one that became especially pronounced after the horrors visited by two world wars, and his examples help to illustrate the link between historical fiction, the fantastique, and the French notion of horror cinema: “From Alexandre Dumas’ Man in the Iron Mask, Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, and Victor Hugo’s Laughing Man, to the post-WWI obsession with the gueules cassées—the facial mutilees of trench warfare—and all the way to the groundbreaking 2005 facial graft on the patient Isabelle Dinoire, the replacement of a face—with its implication of the replacement or return of a visage—has been a theme so significant as to amount to a national obsession.”
In the case of faces in Eyes Without a Face, Christiane’s visage—or lack thereof—is central to her identity/lack of identity both as a woman and as a human. Already labelled dead, she is stripped of her humanity and becomes Other without it: the film seems to suggest that she could be angelic or monstrous, or both, and the course of the action will determine where she ultimately lands. Franju regularly explored these themes of identity, fantasy, madness, imprisonment, violent death, and difficult parent-child relationships throughout his career. His previous effort, La tête contre les murs (Head Against the Wall, 1959) was set largely at a mental hospital—with Brasseur again co-starring as a doctor and Scob in the background—with a son confined against his will by his father. In Pleins feux sur l’assassin (Spotlight on the Assassin, 1961), a dying man (again Brasseur) decides to hide his own body somewhere on his estate to frustrate his heirs, who are killed one by one as they search for his corpse.
But two of his ‘60s films, Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962) and Thomas l’imposteur (Thomas the Impostor, 1965), provide something of a loose trilogy with Eyes Without a Face—at least in my mind—due to the emphasis on poetic realism in all three. While neither are horror films, they are concerned with dependent figures (a wife and a young man) in various states of imprisonment who are possessed by a longing for power, agency, and identity. Thérèse Desqueyroux follows an unhappy wife (Emmanuelle Riva) who attempts to poison her husband when she is essentially kept prisoner in their isolated home in the country and he sends his sister (Edith Scob), her only companion, to an asylum. Thomas l’imposteur is set on the European battlefields of WWI and again stars Riva as an idealistic aristocrat determined not to evacuate. Her ambitions are curtailed until she meets a young man named Thomas (Fabrice Rouleau). He is mistaken for the nephew of a famous and beloved general and takes advantage of this—gradually believing this other identity to be his own—to lead a life of adventure and danger.
This similar sense of fantasy and longing is central to Christiane’s identity. Trapped in the house, she fantasizes about her vibrant life and even at her cruelest and most alien, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for her; she is utterly without love and affection, incontrovertibly shut off from the world. In Kate Ince’s book Georges Franju, she writes, “The plot of Les yeux sans visage, like a number of horror and science-fiction films before and since, is entirely woven around the idea that to be faceless is to be without a social identity, unviewable and unacceptable to the world. Eugen Schüfftan’s photography of Franju’s imagery of faces, masks and facelessness haunts more powerfully than any drama of looks, perhaps simply because of the subliminal hold that facial form has on spectatorial perception.”
A connection can certainly be drawn between Christiane’s lonely predicament—the abusive situation she lives in and her eventual acts of violence—and the downtrodden wife in Les diaboliques (director Clouzot’s own wife, Vera). Both were products of the highly underrated writing team Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose work inspired another classic of identity dysphoria and madness, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). But the gritty realism of Les diaboliques is replaced with fairy tale sensibility that revolves around this notion of imprisonment. It’s easy to see Christiane as a princess in one of the old stories. Whether sleeping, believed to be dead, or physically locked up, she evokes figures like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel. Similarly, she bears a kinship to the titular figure from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” where a scientist experimenting on poisonous plants accidentally turns his beloved daughter into a toxic monster, a sort of biological weapon, and must keep her shut off from the world.
Christiane’s plight is more disturbing because of the deliberateness behind it. She could have died in the car accident or been left in quiet disfigurement, but her father’s determination to restore her beauty takes on an unwholesome, even perverse quality when it is clear that she has been left in a state of living death. Like the Phantom of the Opera’s titular figure, her facelessness is the cause and effect of her monstrousness. Geroulanos writes, “The rush to restore her face is a rush to restore her to herself, to herself in the mirror, to her social presence, her love life, her humanity—to restore her to the status of a character from that of a medusa-like inhuman force.” British Hammer Studios would explore a similar theme in the years following the release of Eyes Without a Face in films like The Gorgon (1964), The Reptile (1966), and Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), where it is suggested that a woman’s loss of beauty is the ultimate horror and strips her of her value in the world.
Franju himself rejected the label of horror and called it an “anguish film” and I can’t help but read it as a film about profound grief and sorrow. Eyes Without a Face seems to lament the loss of youth and beauty, while also condemning the notion that Christiane cannot live without them. The belief that Christiane must be literally dead to the world without her beauty is central to Génessier’s obsession with restoring her face—even if that face is violently taken from another, dead girl. And in the end, Génessier is clearly the film’s villain, not his daughter, who rescues herself and the other victims of her father’s scalpel. Geroulanos writes, “She transforms, from an eumenide—a figure of pain haunting the rational father’s circumstance, aims, and hope, fueling his guilt over the car crash that disfigured her—into a fury at his failure to restore her humanity and at his persistent fantasy that repetition could result in success. Her assault becomes one on order, medicine, and science, on clinical cure as a construction of hope and as a manipulation of her being.” Perhaps Eyes Without a Face will never have the mainstream appeal of another film from the same year about a doomed woman, Psycho, but its poetic, painful message has withstood the test of time and remains curiously apt. Christiane is one of the few female protagonists in a century of horror cinema to transition from victim, to monster, to ultimately become the hero of her own story, an angelic figure of liberation. Like the furies of Aeschylus’s The Eumenides, the third part of the Oresteia, she serves to restore order to the natural world while embracing the notion that this world may hold no future for her.