The other day I was reading a comment thread on Reddit about some movie, and while this is not a course of action I would recommend to anyone, I somehow did find myself thinking deeply about a comment some jerk left. He brought up Citizen Kane and argued that modern audiences would not enjoy or even respond to the film because its technical achievements and narrative devices have become rote in the last seventy or so years. My initial reaction was “fuck you,” but I’ve been thinking about that in terms of trying to review older cinema. My dilemma is that I’m not sure if I should factor the impact a movie had into my musings. It’s not like I can put myself into the head space of audiences back then, or even anyone who isn’t exactly me right now. It’s something I like to call the “John Carter of Mars” effect. And it’s relevant when talking about Eyes Without a Face because its influence is so obvious.
Eyes Without a Face opens with a woman (Alida Valli) ominously driving at night through the woods in the suburbs outside of Paris. Although not too ominously, like Haxan the music isn’t really freaky at all. Hey John, when did movie music get scary? I mean music outside of that scene in Fantasia. Anyway, the driver’s nervous because in the back seat is a concealed, slouched figure. You guessed it, dead body! Eventually the driver pulls over and drags the corpse out to the river and dumps it. French people are so classy.
Following a lecture on how great it will be to put some people’s body parts on other people, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is called to the morgue. There he identifies that body from earlier as his daughter, who had previously been in a car accident and lost her face as a result. After the funeral, the doctor returns to his home… with the woman who dropped the body off earlier, Louise. Together they go to his daughter’s room, where we learn that she is very much alive and the other girl had died after the doctor cut her face off hoping to graft it onto his daughter. His daughter is named Christiane (Edith Scob), and due to her facelessness, she’s forced to wear a mask modeled after her old face.
Disfigured people wearing masks to hide their shame is nothing new, even in 1960 The Phantom of the Opera would have been 50 years old. But as far as I can tell, Eyes Without a Face gave the world the idea of the creepy, expressionless face mask and the idea of face removal surgery. That’s right, without this French horror movie, we’d never have gotten true high art like Halloween, Face/Off, or The Skin I Live In.
Despite Christiane asking to die, the doctor and Louise won’t give up, and Louise goes out to lure another young girl to the doctor’s mansion. She succeeds, and we then get to see something really grotesque. The girl wakes up on an operating table with Christiane looking over her, unmasked. We don’t see her face that clearly, so it doesn’t seem like things will be that bad. Then she goes back under and doctor slowly cuts her face off. When he’s done cutting, he slowly peels it away from her head. It’s really quite revolting! Wanna see it? Here’s a link.
You can probably guess where it goes from there… Some people die in ways that are appropriate to their individual stories. I will withhold exactly how it goes down because the movie is pretty short and pretty cool, you should probably check it out for yourself. I still don’t feel like I’ve watched a proper horror movie yet, as Eyes Without a Face feels more like an art house movie about the importance of female beauty, isolation, and the classic good intentions gone bad. Besides the one necessarily graphic scene, it’s mostly pretty tame. Not that I’m complaining about being given the opportunity to enjoy a poetic film and feel like a badass by not being afraid, which I so often am.
Also the movie inspired a Billy Idol song that sucks.