Les Yeux sans visage
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source Rialto Pictures 35mm print
The self-possessed, immoral villain of Eyes Without a Face kidnaps women (“all students, all the same age, all the same type of beauty”), surgically removes their faces, and hides their bodies in a family tomb. He has the vanity and obsessive science of a Dr. Frankenstein, only with the tact to place his expired subjects in a grave instead of removing them from one.
Describing this character as a villain, as with many filmic incarnations of the Evil Doctor, is insufficient and misleading. These, generally, are sophisticated and intelligent characters that enact violence with strategy, predetermination, and reason. Conceptually this is the most dynamic sort of villain, one whose disregard for humanity is in accordance to his intention to preserve it. It is murder for the sake of science.
The Doctor in this case is Dr. Génessier, a practicing plastic surgeon, whose daughter, Christiane, has been disfigured in a car accident. Her father’s intention is to restore her beauty. As with his cinematic colleagues, Génessier’s notion of beauty is superficial. The Doctor requires his daughter to wear a rubber, immobile mask — this film’s trademark is Christiane roaming about her father’s mansion with the precarious curiosity of a child and the effortless fright of a life size, life-bestowed porcelain doll. Génessier’s attempts to mend her fail. His unacknowledged conceit is that even if his surgery is successful his daughter’s anonymity will remain; he is essentially replacing her temporary mask with a more realistic one.
Eyes Without a Face is uncharacteristically horrific for a film of its age and pedigree. It has the staging and rhythm of Noir (Alida Valli, as Génessier’s servant Louise, was previously seen in The Third Man), and, up until one incredible scene, employs horror with implication and ambiance. Ethereal dog howls emanate from an unknown source throughout the film, signifying the abstract presence of a monster. Eyes Without a Face has also a suggestive element in its carnival-esque score.
The film opens with Louise enlisted to dispose of a body, and devotes its remainder to the procedure of tempting subsequent victims. This is detailed carefully, culminating in a shocking sequence in which a sedated woman has her face incised and removed. It is a significant feature of this film that this timeless scene is depicted with such clinical precision, and yet Christiane’s face is never revealed. In displaying this totally unexpected horror, the film maintains that its principal character’s condition is worse.
Christiane begins to realize her father’s preoccupation with success and not her comfort, and she suspects his attempts to mend her will continue. Louise is evidence of his success, seen always with a choker pearl necklace that obscures the solitary scar of her surgery. Her face is otherwise faultless, but it belongs to a corpse. In a final sequence, Christiane revolts, frees a patient, and is confronted by Louise. She procures a scalpel and stabs her father’s accomplice squarely in the neck, careful not to ruin his work.