Les Yeux sans Visage/Eyes Without a Face (1960)
I decided to take a chance and catch a French horror film the other night. A carefully chosen film from Film Fear, the pop-up channel from Film Four over the Halloween week. Now being difference from the average horrors that were on during the week Les Yeux sans Visage/Eyes Without a Face (1960) stood out for me for a few reasons, one being foreign (not of the English language) there maybe something more going on here. Also released around the same time as Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960), a time when horror was starting to see a resurgence. So I sat down, excited by the foreign nature of the film, ready for the mess, the gore, the madness of the plot.
What started with so much potential, driving through the outskirts of Paris where a woman – Edna Grüber (Juliette Mayniel) is making sure that she wasn’t being followed, has she done something wrong, is the obscured figure in the back seat of her car going to attack her before we leave her. Instead this is a female corpse whose dragged into the river, dumping the evidence of a supposed murder is lost or carried away so she can’t be connected. Before cutting to a lecture by the esteemed Docteur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) on the fight to stay useful and the use of transplantation in that eternal struggle to obtain immortality. The science is rather flawed if you think about it, draining the of all the patients blood, whose donating the organ/body part to the receiver, which should allow for a more successful acceptance of the new piece. Now this is utter nonsense for anyone with an ounce of sense. You need an exact match of blood types etc to avoid organ rejection. Here is a man who ignores the laws of science in order to succeed in his real plans which are still unknown at this point. All we know is that he’s respected in his field, he can follow his dreams with no resistance. This is our civilised mad professor, leading a double life, a trope of the horror character. Along with a string of missing young women in the capital something is definitely going on with this man and woman.
So how are these elements connected – the death of Génessier‘s daughter, whose body has just been found, complete with very distinctive disfigured features – only the eyes are left in tact. Out of pure curiosity I wanted to see the disfigured face of the girl more than anything. The build-up is enough to draw you into this world. Could all of the girl who have gone missing turn up only to be impossible to identify them. Somethings definitely going on that isn’t being explained.
Of course as soon as Génessier is at the funeral do we start to see where this is all going, with Edna Grüber at his side, she is showing signs not of grieve but horror at what is going to happen. Well at least she is. The doctor is ready get on with his life, or is that his plan to resurrect his daughter, Louise’s life. It’s not the most complex of films when you think about as we return to his home/laboratory/theatre, the reveal of the daughter on-screen is equally frustrating as the dead daughter whose identified earlier on. Her face hidden from view, either buried in a pillow or by the camera’s choice to not yet revealing that side of her. Whose more afraid the cinematographer or the audience by this forced reluctance to show her face. Again I wanted to see how badly scared she was, what actually caused this disfigurement. My attention was increasing by this withholding of information. Beautifully portrayed by Alida Valli who have to wait to see her face, hidden by a delicately crafted mask she wears for most of the film.
It’s all clear now within that scene the motives of her father, his medical research and the lengths that he will go to restore his daughter her former state, able to function in life again even if she has to take on a new identity. Her life is no longer in her hands, the young woman has fallen to depend on her father and his assistant who lock her away from the outside world. The missing girls in town all start to make sense now, with a decision that doesn’t really work for the film, having Edna lure the young women back, a decision that plays against the predatory male we usually assume in films and reality to be behind most missing persons. For me this is not as creepy, a middle-aged woman, subtlety checking out the faces of women to potentially bring back. Maybe this is as conscious decision to play against this type’s supposed to make this film more interesting and darker, a woman leading a woman is fresher than the heterosexual reading you usually have in films. However it didn’t really feel that much darker than it was intended.
What really lets the film down is the clinical take on Frankenstein’s Monster, OK this is the 1960’s science has moved on. The aim of the films is to repair/restore a woman’s face/beauty. Not to create life from lifelessness, there’s still an element of that in there, taking a face from a living person to give to another. It’s a brutal act to steal from one to restore another, a medical rape really no consent from the patient is given. The surgical scenes today are tame, especially since the first successful face transplant and even to a lesser extent Face/Off (1997) which is more revealing in the detail, some 1990’s technology and block-buster nonsense to explain what is going on.
Of course both are pure fantasy, yet the later is braver in the depiction of the surgery that is carried out on-screen. You could say that the 37 year gap between the two films is unfair to really compare them both. Maybe it was the budget that restrained what we saw, we may have been better off without seeing anything or to re-stage/edit the surgery in Les Yeux sans Visage/Eyes Without a Face so there is more horror. Its too cold and clinically restrained to be truly the horrific an experience it really is, this is a horror at the end of the day!
Lastly I felt the ending was really deserving more, as Louise fights back against all the deaths that have been carried out in her name. To ensure she has her beauty, it shows she wants a better quality of life, even if she has to go to a plastic surgeon who has to carryout numerous operations to give her some quality of life again. Instead she lashes out and rightly so against those who have held her back for so long. I came away feeling let down really on a few levels, maybe I was expecting too much from a French horror which I thought would be darker, bloodier and creepier than a possible American take on the film.