This is a famous early horror film that is at once creepy, haunting, and beautiful. You had better watch it. It seems entirely crucial to a complete view of horror films, yet it’s difficult to determine exactly which films it went on to influence. It is also notable for tonally being more about beauty, isolation and sadness than the desire to disgust or thrill, though those elements are certainly there as well.
Over the credits we see the stark image of bare trees from the perspective or a car driving at night. A woman is driving a mysterious person in the backseat. It soon becomes apparent that this person is dead, confirmed a minute later when the woman dumps the body in a river.
We then move to a police station where the police chief and another officer are discussing the body, whose face is apparently mangled, and expecting the arrival of Dr. Génessier. It would appear that the doctor’s daughter disappeared under mysterious and somewhat suspicious circumstances, and he is coming to identify the body. We are told that prior to her disappearance, his daughter was in a car accident that burned her face, and left her laying unconscious for a time, during which her face was apparently gnawed at by rats! During this scene and after we notice the recurring image of trains passing in the distance, and again with the bare trees. There are quite a few gorgeous shots of the spidery branches of the trees reflected in the shiny blackness of the doctor’s car. We’ll come back to this after we get more into what the movie’s about.
The doctor identifiess the body as that of his daughter, Christiane. It is important that he get there first, as there is another man whose daughter has also disappeared and has come to identify her body. I presume that the doctor gets to go first because of his prominent social position, but it’s important because it means that the other man is not allowed to see the body. There is a harrowing scene just outside the morgue as the other father asks the doctor if he’s really sure it was his own child. By now we have figured out that the body IS the other man’s child, and that the doctor has used her to fake the death of his own daughter, which lends a diabolical air to the doctor telling the other man that, since his daughter’s body supposedly hasn’t been found, he “still has hope.” When the man continues on about what emotional anguish he’s in, the doctor adds that it is odd he should turn to the doctor, who has supposedly just lost his own daughter, for comfort. The whole displacement of who really has the right to greive and the doctor’s stoic act set against the anguish of the other father is the first indications of the games this film is going to play, and points to its emphasis on the deep emotions at work, rather than the creepy thrill of it all. This emphasis is also what tells you the viewer to take this movie more seriously than other movies that are more just about creeping the viewer out.
After a lecture in which we learn that the doctor is pioneering a process of tissue regeneration, the doctor returns to his rural home, wherin we hear the barking of quite a number of dogs. We then get a schematic introduction to the layout of the house from the ground up. There is a chamber in which about 30 dogs are kept in iron cages, then an operating room, all of which is sealed off in a secret passage off the garage. Then there is the house itself, and way, way up top, an attic room where the doctor’s daughter Christiane is kept.
We first see Christiane when the doctor’s assistant, the woman we saw driving the car at the beginning, goes up to bring her food. She is laying prostrate on her bed, face turned away, and talks about what a nightmare her life is. The assistant tells her to put on her mask, and she does; it is an eerily lifelike white mask that reveals only her eyes [hence the title]. The extremely creepy appearance of Christiane in her mask is a great deal of what drives the power of this film.
It would seem that the doctor was responsible for the accident that left her that way, which occurred because he was “driving like a maniac,” and his deep sense of guilt and obsessive desire to “make it right” are driving his morally reprehensible actions now and throughout the film. We also learn that his assistant also had her face mangled [but apparently not nearly as bad as Christiane’s], and was returned to beauty, leaving only a scar on her neck that she hides by constantly wearing a pearl choker. By the way, Christine was also engaged to a handsome young man named Jacques when she had her accident, and calls him periodically without speaking just so she can her his voice.
If you haven’t seen the movie, and you think you’re interested, I would advise you to stop now and come back after you’ve watched it. I’ll warn you again before I discuss the ending, but the stuff from here on out is good to experience yourself.
SPOILERS > > >
So the assistant, forever indebted to the doctor for fixing her face, makes it her business to go into town and recruit young women who might make a good facial replacement for Christiane. She overhears one girl say that she’s looking for a place to live, and soon enough that girl is with her on a LONG, suspenseful drive way out of town, the girl getting more and more nervous the more secluded and rural things get. The sound of numerous barking dogs when they arrive at this huge mansion doesn’t help to allay her fears. She is just telling the good doctor that she wasn’t looking for anything this out of town, when—surprise!
A bit after this Christiane wanders downstairs. I would bet $100 that her creepy spectral walk with her delicate hands held out to her sides seen here [and at the climax] influenced Sissy Spacek’s post-prom walk in Carrie. She goes into the lab and sees the young woman lashed to a gurney, then goes and says hello to the dogs. The dogs, it is revealed rather late in the film, have been the subjects of the doctors skin-grafting experiments before he moved on to humans. Christiane’s communing with the dogs, especially one large hound who simply holds his head to hers, is one of the more haunting images of the film. She then goes back in the operating room and removes her mask. When the prisoner wakes up, we get our only glimpse of Christiane. It is evocatively out of focus, lending it more power than it would have had we been offered a clear view.
The doctor comes home and he and the nurse begin an excruciatingly drawn-out and detailed scene of facial removal that brings a lot of he horror elements of the movie to the fore just by the detail of its extreme gore—and also that there’s nothing else like it in the movie. It’s a little strange looking back now, knowing that the French just performed the first successful facial transplant.
The next time we see Christiane, she has a face. The first look at her as a lovely young woman [who looks exactly like her mask, but alive] is another stunner in a movie filled with electrifying images. She is happy and she wants to call her fiance, but they persuade her to wait. After a little creepy nudging at her cheeks [which makes one think about the reality of this alien face sitting on Christiane’s flesh], the doctor realizes that the graft has not worked. He does not tell Christiane this right away, but her expression in the medical photos that follow tell the story. Having someone else’s dead flesh rotting on your face... awesome.
I have changed my mnd and decided that I’m not going to tell you the ending, because you should see it yourself without knowing. Just trust me that the many disparate elements come together in surprising but perfect ways.
Oh, but I will mention one thing; marvel in shock at how brazenly the police blackmail a young woman into acting as bait for the doctor!
This movie is unusual in the great amount of content it derives from its images alone. Yes, it has a fascinating and diabolical story, but what really makes it all coalesce into something much more powerful and haunting than the mere sum of its parts are these indelible images that carry more than their share of meaning—look at the amount of times I have called out a specific image just during this review. The look of Christiane with her mask carries a great deal of the content here, as does her willowy walk, the shock of seeing her [out of focus] mangled face, and the shock of seeing her new face. The gory reality of the facial removal scene crystallizes the horror of the film, and the wordless scene with the dogs does a great deal of work to express Christiane’s loneliness and isolation—and slyly sets up the ultimate resolution.
I say this because I think that the power of the climax of this film derives almost entirely from the power of the final image. Yes, the story is wrapped up on a plot level, but I think it is the power and poeticism of the final image [also, I’m betting, an influence on Carrie], that really brings it all together and makes it more than the story alone could muster.
Now, you wonder, what about those trains? What’s that all about? [There is also one conspicuous shot of a plane passing overhead, spectacularly fake, so the director must have really felt it important to have a model plane built for that exact shot.] I think they offer, on a purely imagistic level, a setting of anonymity and faceless mass movement, almost processing of human beings, that comments on the anonymous nature of the young women of Paris who disappear in this movie and are not heard of again. We never find out what happened to the daughter of the grieving father at the beginning, and the police do not seem to be all that moved by another young woman disappearing. So ultimately I think they’re about setting up an air of human processing, anonymous mass movement and human disconnection that allows this story to occur. One can also speculate that, this movie coming out in 1959, that the Nazi concentration camps, with their trains and processing of human beings, would still be fresh in the psyche.
I was surprised to see that the trains also appear in a ‘processing of life’ context in Blood of the Beasts, the earlier short film by director Georges Franju that is also included on the Criterion disc of this film. This is a documentary about the Parisian slaughterhouses, and shows several animals being killed and dismembered in gorgeous black and white photography. Be warned; this is some highly gory, shocking material. If you are a vegetarian or animal rights enthusiast you will NOT want to watch this. I myself enjoy a good steak and love a nice juicy veal chop, and I was uttering “oh my God!” at several moments during that film. Again, there are several indelible images; one for me was a horse getting a bolt shot into its skull. It jumps straight up into the air like a cat, curling its legs and head underneath it, then slams down to the ground. I’ll warn you that after the next scene in which a cow is dismembered, we have a shot of a fetal calf laying on the ground. So please, use caution. There is also an interview with Franju on the making of the documentary, which is also interesting, in an oblique way, on Eyes Without A Face as well.
Franju went on to make a number of films in France. I don’t know how many of them are available in the States, but I’m beginning to think I’d better find out.
Oh, and by the way, yes, this is where the title of the Billy Idol song came from.
Yes, this is a horror classic, but transcends that genre and has value for almost anyone.