Eyes Without a Face (French: Les yeux sans visage) was not well-received when it was released in 1960. I’m not surprised. The movie works with tropes from the horror genre (e. g., an egotistical mad scientist who will do anything for his work), and has a level of gore shocking even by today’s standards. However, it’s also incredibly thoughtful, full of disquieting imagery, and riddled with poignant questions. This type of movie cannot pass for what critics might write off as a B-movie, but it’s also too entrenched in ideas from a “minor genre” for those critics to accept it. They couldn’t just say, “Oh, well that was trashy.” They had to dispel it, loudly (one critic was nearly fired for admitting she liked the movie), because it brought up so many conflicting feelings between what a horror film should be, and what Eyes Without a Face is.
The movie follows the well-regarded Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), who spends his downtime cutting off young ladies’ faces in order to perform a “hectograph,” where said faces are transplanted onto his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob). Christiane has been proclaimed dead to the public, and she hides in the Génessier villa because her face has been horrifically scarred in a car accident. When she is without a face, she wears a haunting, all-white mask. Doctor Génessier’s assistant, Louise (Alida Valli), kidnaps the young ladies and brings them to the villa.
The plot is almost comically cliché, but the execution is not. Director Georges Franju draws a lot of thematic connections to fairy tales, a genre that has a similar public perception—i. e. as a genre of childlike artistic sensibility—but has over time become recognized for its complexity and ability to reflect society. Horror, likewise, presents fantastical worlds and at times gruesome story-lines, often in a way that raises intriguing questions and connects with viewers on a visceral level. The fairy tale elements, when brought out, reveal the ways in which Eyes Without a Face goes far beyond what critics accredited it for upon its release.
There are some very basic plot similarities between Eyes Without a Face and some of the eerie tales collected by (and/or written by?) Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, namely character archetypes. There is the father trying to protect his daughter from the world in their giant castle/mansion (“Sleeping Beauty”), the sinister stepmother (“Snow White,” “Cinderella”), the girl trying to escape captivity (“Blue Beard”), and quite a few other direct comparisons.
But more important is the shared “feel” of the film and those stories, which is largely brought in from the use of character archetypes and the conflict between a world that is clearly separate from our own and one that contains threats of violence that are very real. “Little Red Riding Hood” is frightening because we can see a little girl being attacked in the woods by a malevolent creature.
In Eyes Without a Face, the scenes alternate between brutally realistic depictions of violence (the “hectograph” scene is one of the most disturbing instances of violence/gore I have seen in a horror movie) and moments of artistic fantasy. When Christiane wanders the house in her mask, she emotes entirely with her eyes and body, like a dancer. Scenes with her are poetic, and they contrast the parts of the movie that focus on her father, which are disturbingly clinical. The result is a contradicting set of emotions about what we expect from the movie as a genre flick, and what we actually experience, which creates that subconscious uneasiness that defines the best horror movies.
Fairy tales also benefit from their fantastical elements because it allows the reader to interpret the text in several different ways, and Eyes Without a Face shares that benefit. Is this a story about the dangers of a corrupt morality and scientific ethics? Or the story of a young girl who is shunned by society for her appearances? Is it an allegory for the way identity changes after trauma? Take your pick; the beauty of a movie like Eyes Without a Face is that you can read into it in numerous ways, and that stems directly from the way Franju mimics the sensibility of fairy tales.
In this vein, I find the most interesting themes to be those surrounding the daughter, Christiane. She is shunned by society, locked up by her father, and forced into seclusion by him and his assistant. In many ways, this is a combination of the classic “Locked Up Woman” and “Secret Disfigured ‘Monster'” tales. Those two stories are interesting to combine, because the former usually focuses on either insane patriarchs/husbands or the need to protect women, and the latter focuses on society’s horrible biases against those that we do not consider normal. What we see here are the flaws in the idea that women must be protected from the world; social norms of beauty (and the controlling tendencies of egotistical, powerful men) are actually the problem, and not female fragility.
To illustrate this, consider the unfolding of the narrative (SPOILERS for the rest of this paragraph): at first, Christiane’s exile seems self-imposed, because she is horrified of what society and her fiancé would think of her now that she is disfigured. However, as her father kidnaps more young women and is consumed by his own image, she realizes that the evil is not a society that will shun her; it is her father, who uses his family to drive his ego, pushing science forward for all of the wrong reasons. The triumph of the story is when she forsakes her “stepmother” and father, liberating herself and the animals that the doctor performed experiments on. Instead of a horror story, this can be seen as an “Escape from Evil Parents” story. And that’s just one of the ways you can look at it.
The fairy tale-like nature of Eyes Without a Face works greatly in its favor and reveals how it functions as a contradiction: it is a film that captures the brutality and harshness of the horror genre, but also the beauty and poeticism of more “artistic” cinema. If you are looking for something this Octoberween that encapsulates brutality, eeriness, genre thrills, and thoughtfulness, then you can’t do much better than Eyes Without a Face.