‘Nouvelle Visage, Nouvelle Femme’ – 2008 by Wendy McCredie
The first of three full length reviews written for Montage Film and published during May 2008.
Eyes Without A Face (1960) is a French language, black and white horror film. A beautifully shot, dark psychological thriller, where gender, identity and motivation is a constantly shifting landscape, this film somehow manages to contain nearly everything I love in good horror cinema. The horror is not one of screams, jumps and sudden reveals, but of slow burning unease building through revulsion to a fitting climax. In Apocalypse Now Marlon Brando’s character insists that horror has both a name and a face, the anonymous narrator of Chris Marker’s Sans Solei, agrees but posits that if this is true, then beauty also has a name and a face. In Eyes Without A Face, the pivotal character of Christiane embodies both of these roles, playing as she does the princess locked in the tower and the monster lurking in the basement. Encapsulating the contradictory nature of female portrayal in horror cinema in her dual role of monster and victim.
At its best and most basic, horror is about conflict and crossing boundaries. The pure versus the impure, the living against the dead. Look a bit deeper and the conflicts and boundaries blur even further, between men and women, heterosexual and homosexual even between human and monster. Part of the pleasure is the uncertainty and ambiguity, shaking up the audience’s world-view and making them reassess what they believe to be true, and traditionally take them back to a nice safe retreat with the status quo reclaimed. In the dark of the cinema, it is safe to be scared. The familiar will comfort the audience while it conflicts them, and below the surface the shifting plates of gender identity and conflict roil and slide.
Oddly, for a film so focused on the feminine in horror, there is very little screaming. The scream has for so long played a central role in relation to gender performance in horror cinema: if the men are scared and showing it, the women need to be nigh on hysterical to keep the balance. Screaming in Eyes Without A Face is generally confined to death, a mark of surrender in the ongoing battle of the sexes. With the exception of Paulette, whose screams when she awakens on the operating table mark her rebellion, her refusal to surrender without a fight.
In aural terms the most well known symbol of horror is the female scream. While film theorists have much to say on the role of the scream in the coding of gender representations in horror cinema, the significance of the scream itself is generally under-explored. Academics exploring the horror genre often allude to the significance of the scream, sometimes referred to as ‘the genre’s most famous trope’, without ever explaining what that significance might be. As with several of horror’s most iconic tropes, its power remains acknowledged yet unspoken. But a scream somehow provokes a deeper and more powerful emotional response in the viewer, seeming to better connect viewer and victim. What Michel Chion refers to as the ‘screaming point’ is at the centre of countless horror films, a kind of black hole within the narrative, sucking everything towards it. The screaming female has defined the genre since before the scream could be heard, the silent screams of threatened females in Nosferatu are no less central than the Faye Wray’s infamous histrionics in King Kong. The gaping maw of the screaming face embodies all that is unspoken and beyond thought, the scream as the ultimate expression of unadulterated, limitless fear.
Although the film opens like a Hitchcockian thriller, and employs a variety of touches throughout that suggest his influence, motivations and tropes employed have more in common with Frankenstein than with Psycho. As the film progresses Dr Génessier increasingly fills the role of mad scientist, his ‘secretary’ Louise only lacking the compulsory disfigurement for her devoted assistant role because he has rebuilt her face. He labours long and hard to replace the face he has destroyed, as though to erase his own transgression. Indulging his god-complex every bit as much as Dr Frankenstein did. Perhaps because of this the moments of true horror in the film are of a medical nature, although not gruesome in nature or visually the implications are quite horrific. Both the operation and the disintegration of Christiane’s new face are shot with a cold detachment at odds with the poetic nature of the rest of the cinematography, as though we were watching a documentary of medical procedures. The detachment and control with which Dr Génessier acts and speaks, as those his experiments are entirely rational and reasonable, that the deaths of the girls whose faces he takes are utterly justified, is unnerving. His daughter accuses him of caring more about the dogs he experiments on than the girls, and the audience doesn’t doubt it for a moment. The only affection he shows his daughter acts as a sort of emotional blackmail to justify his continuing experiments. A man in need of utter control and domination, he is set on reconstructing his daughter in his own image of her. Louise refers to her new face as ‘angelic’ a description that Christiane denies but that her father re-enforces. Prior to her accident she had her own life, a fiancé, was on the cusp of leaving the family home. In faking her death and funeral to disguise his own crimes he has erased the identity she had created for herself in preparation for replacing it with one he will create for her. As her father plans out her future for her, indulgently offering the choice of her new name to her, the sense of a gilded cage being would around her is almost palpable. The similarity of the mask to the face of a porcelain doll takes on a decidedly creepy layer of meaning. If we take Simone Beauvoir’s notion that one is not born but becomes a woman, that to be feminine is a construction of societal forces, then the film takes on the role of creation story, following Génessier’s failed attempt to intervene in Christiane’s development from child to adult, to make her the perfect feminine ‘other’, only for her to reclaim that role to become something ‘other’ entirely.
There is a poetic feel to the film, moments of grace and horror played out in beautifully shot and carefully constructed scenes. An air of watching a particularly brutal modern day fairytale play out before the audience suffuses it. If the film is truly a fairytale then Louise is its evil stepmother. Although her relationship with Dr Génessier is decidedly ambiguous, her role as surrogate mother to Christiane is clear, and it is to her that the young girl appeals for an end to her torment, for release from her father’s experiments. Though in vain for Louise’s devotion to Génessier is unalterable even in the face of murder. Besides her relationship with Christiane’s father, much else is ambiguous about Louise. The way in which she stalks and lures the young women back to the hospital has decided overtones of sexuality that imply that she has other desires than the purely medical in mind when preying on them. (Predatory lesbians are hardly strangers in the world of horror stereotypes, vampire films are full of them) It is Louise who moves the bodies and acts as jailor to Christiane and the faceless girls.
The character Christiane reaches out to, seeking him as her rescuer, ultimately fails in his task. Although her fiancé prompts the police to re-open the case, the plan is quickly abandoned in spite of the kidnapping of the young woman used as bait in the trap. Both he and the police abandon both girls to their fate at the hands of Génessier with little effort. Their only real benefit having been to provide a distraction that allows Christiane to find a point of identification with young Paulette and thus affect their escape. The moment Christiane spends standing over the fearful waking Paulette is her moment of becoming, when she comes to accept her fate as a monster. To the girl on the operating table she is a monster as she is, but if she goes along with her father’s plan and regains her face she will become a different kind of monster. From this perspective, her murder of Louise and her father becomes more than purely vengeance upon those who created her monstrous self, but an act of redemption, as though by freeing and protecting Paulette she can make up for the other girls who she failed to protect from them. The dog mauled face of her dead father marking a symbolic reflection of the damage he has caused to others in his fruitless quest to make her less monstrous. The film ends with Christiane standing among the trees, a dove on her shoulder, oddly androgynous in her shapeless theatre gown and perfect mask like some twisted pastiche of a Disney princess, no longer awaiting rescue by her ineffectual Prince Charming. She does not meet an icy or fiery death locked in combat with her creator/jailor like Frankenstein’s nameless monster, nor does she stumble blindly through the dark to freedom in the style of the ‘last girl’. Her fate is different, more open, something else entirely. Christiane may end the film as full-blown monster, but it is a role, finally, of her own choosing.