Eyes Without a Face (1960) is one of those rare films for which there will never be enough praise. Though its box office returns and contemporary reviews proved audiences of the late ’50s weren’t exactly ready for such a film, today this is easily one of the most influential movies of all time, horror or otherwise. Though the audience and critics alike generally focus on the most visceral and shocking moments of Eyes, the true horror of the story is in the way Christiane is controlled and held captive — unbound, yet unable to escape.
The premise is a young woman named Christiane (Édith Scob) has been horribly disfigured in a car accident caused by the reckless driving of her father, the physician Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur). He is attempting to graft an entirely new face onto Christiane, for which he needs living tissue. His assistant Louise’s (Alida Valli) facial scarring was “fixed” during one of his surgical procedures. In twisted gratitude, she helps him procure and dispose of the bodies, who are merely necessary casualties in the Doctor’s mind as he tries to wrangle a moment of heroic triumph out of his horrific abuse of power. Meanwhile, Christiane is trapped within the confines of his isolated manor after he purposefully misidentifies the corpse of a girl whose death he caused, therefore declaring Christiane officially deceased. Bordering on the line between life and a sort of waking death, Christiane becomes the tortured observer of her father’s crimes.
Many reviews of Eyes say that the doctor is “riddled with guilt” for the car accident that destroyed his daughter’s face, but there isn’t any evidence of this in the film. He has clear personal and professional reasons for wanting to restore her to her former state, but at no point does he express any level of remorse for his actions, nor does he ever speak to her as an adult. When he sees her face, he grimaces and urges her to wear her mask all the time. He is incapable of facing the things he has done to her, much less feeling genuine sorrow for them. Like many abusers who claim to love the people they hurt, he is only capable of loving himself.
Director Georges Franju is said to have chosen to make a horror film in part to force people to take the genre more seriously as an art form. In this regard, Eyes is a resounding success. The film perfects Franju’s prior documentary attempts in films like Blood of the Beasts (1949), in which he did things such as show graphic animal death inside of a slaughterhouse while playing a bouncy pop song — a commentary on the horror that comes from mass consumption regardless if it’s of love or death. By showing the doctor’s softer side, he does not humanize him so much as warns that monsters do indeed hide in plain sight. Christiane’s disfigurement is an expression of his hubris. Despite his massive estate, the respect of his community, and the shallow platitudes he offers in his defense, he is nothing more than a criminal. Every scene simply drives home his utter callousness — when the father of the dead girl who he misidentified as Christiane laments that he misses his child, the doctor, knowing for a fact that his daughter is dead, coldly says, “How odd that I should comfort you. You have some hope at least.”
Christiane’s environment is spacious and beautiful, yet she is just another bird or dog at the hands of a scientist who believes that his ends will always justify the means. Though she remains at the periphery of the story which focuses more on the actions of Louise and the Doctor procuring and disfiguring new girls, she is the character that most effectively communicates the Doctor’s cruelty and his need to control. We never see him abuse her physically or verbally, but he never listens to her and blames her for his own actions. It is implied in her every movement that she is terrified of him. The horror genre is well-known for a general lack of subtlety, but Eyes is brilliant specifically because of what it doesn’t show. The traces of abuse are tangible through the film, from the throwaway line about the Doctor’s deceased wife to the casually cruel treatment of the dogs to the way he completely shrugs off the deaths of the young women he experiments on.
Christiane is trapped in the mansion, but it is more complicated than simply unlocking a door and leaving. Louise and her father remove all the mirrors from the house, leaving only a painting of Christiane as she was. When Christiane notes that the portrait is no longer who she is, the other two ignore her. Louise loves her and is not afraid of her scarring, but she plays a huge role in keeping her compliant. Meanwhile, Christiane moves through the house like a wraith.
Something that stands out more with every viewing of this film is how each character is surrounded by expansive space, yet each of them is trapped: Christiane literally, Louise through misplaced loyalty, and the Doctor by his own need to control. Clever filmmaking choices add to this air of stifling oppression despite the beautiful surroundings. For instance, while the doctor is outside, there is a cacophony of birds merrily chirping away. The moment he opens the door to his house, there is only the pitiful yowling of the several dogs he keeps in too-small cages. The cages that hold the dogs are literal, while the cages that hold the three characters at the center of this drama seem equally impossible to escape. Yet, while the other two are ultimately killed in no small part because of their crimes, Christiane, the birds, and the dogs all ultimately go free. When Christiane frees her father’s victims, she frees herself as well. The doctor no longer has any power over her. Where she goes does not matter because she goes, finally, beautifully, under her will alone.
About the Author
Sara Century is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. She is a writer of short stories, articles about comics and film, and many, many zines. She is an artist, comic creator, filmmaker, and podcaster, and she used to be a musician. She’s written for SyFy.com, StarTrek.com, Bustle, Gayly Dreadful, and many more. Visit her website at SaraCentury.com. Find Sara’s webcomic with Tana Thornock and her podcast about comics with SE Fleenor. Follow her on Twitter @SaraCentury.