Girl Meets Context: John Carpenter has alluded that the basic concept for Michael Myers’ mask in Halloween was inspired by the mask Christiane wears in Eyes Without a Face. Watching the movie today, a whole host of modern movie references seem to be traceable back to Eyes Without a Face - the barrage of tests Paulette undergoes foreshadow the sequences in The Exorcist where Regan’s doctors put her through dozens of painful procedures to try to figure out what ails her; Christiane herself prefigures hosts of monstrous females that populate the films of later decades, especially Carrie White from Carrie; and the very trope of the mad surgeon has been expanded upon in films like The Human Centipede, Dr. Giggles, and Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. Eyes Without a Face was controversial upon its European release in 1960 – there are (possibly apocryphal) stories of audience members fainting and fleeing the theater during its earliest screenings and of film critics being threatened with termination for writing positive reviews. The central “facelift” sequence was the major reason for the uproar, and it was cut almost entirely from the heavily edited U.S. release of the film (under the title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus). The movie has a simple premise – a surgeon’s daughter is horribly disfigured in a car accident he caused, so he fakes her death and begins kidnapping girls in order to transplant their faces onto his daughter. Kristine and I sat down to talk about the movie’s fairy tale roots, the possibly feminist ideas at the heart of the story and its lesbian subtext. Be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie and come back! It’s available on Hulu Plus if you’re a user of that service.
Sean: I have NO IDEA what you thought of this movie! I could make a plausible case in my head for you either loving it, hating it or being completely indifference to it.
Kristine: I think I felt like it was very… DRAMATIC! As in “the stage.” It felt very stagey.
Kristine: Yes. It was a lot of pure spectacle.
Sean: I am shocked. I never would have thought of that! It’s always struck me as very cinematic.
Kristine: I mean, there is a girl with no face throwing herself on the ground and begging for death and calling her fiancé who thinks she’s dead and her father practically twirling his moustache and experimenting on dogs and THAT NURSE. The Human Centipede WISHES it had this much going on.
Sean: Did you feel pity or anything for Christiane, the girl with the ruined face? Or were you like, You are a twee, spindly little thing?
Kristine: Well, wait. Before we get into specifics I need to know what your general opinion of the film is.
Sean: Oh, I love this movie.
Kristine: Ok…. In regards to Christiane, I was just like, “If you want to die so bad, then kill yourself.”
Kristine: Yeah, I didn’t feel a huge amount of pathos for her. Though I loved the end, when she goes tripping through the field with the dove on her hand, past her father’s mangled body, wearing THAT MASK. I loved that part. Do you agree that this movie is way creepier and more effective and even grosser than The Human Centipede?
Sean: I was wondering if you’d mention The Human Centipede! Yes, I absolutely think it’s creepier, though I would not say it’s grosser. But Dr. Génessier is creepier than Dr. Heiter because he is always sweating and fumbling with his glasses and smiling beneficently at little boys who are dying, but he is secretly killing women. The first time I saw this I screamed when he suddenly chloroforms Edna. There is something terrible and dreadful about the way Génessier and Louise go about their crimes – they are clinical and composed and mostly silent. They talk to each other very little, which for some reason makes them more sinister and the sense of foreboding more palpable. Dr. Heiter in The Human Centipede is constantly cackling and mugging and cavorting around, which lends a sense of camp to the proceedings (as we discussed previously).
Kristine: I think the real key to Génessier’s character is his treatment of the dogs – it shows that his experiments are not just about restoring his disfigured daughter’s life out of guilt.
Sean: I agree. I found it really fascinating that the backstory for Christiane and her father is basically a kind of drunk driving story. It felt very modern. But the idea that he is responsible, through his own lack of judgment, for Christiane’s state lends a lot of psychological flavor to the story. For me, it also really reinforced my impression of him as a totally incompetent cad. Remember Christiane complains, “He has to control everyone, even on the road. He drove like a lunatic.” The intoxicant that led to the accident isn’t alcohol, but Génessier’s own hubris and sense of patriarchal authority. I know the movie tries to round out his character with the sick little boy, but I find him totally reprehensible and sweaty and disgusting. I think he is my most hated villain from all the movies we’ve watched thus far.
Kristine: He is a puffy nightmare. But I really dug the Gothic elements – the remote manor, the room full of caged dogs. It’s all very medieval and classic. He is a classic mad scientist! But those old school Gothic elements are married to the modern just with all the plastic surgery and the aesthetics of modern medicine. But even his operating room felt like a Gothic torture chamber, with the sinister, oversized lights and various machines everywhere.
Sean: I agree that this movie is overflowing with Gothic references. But I really love how it does all that while still feeling VERY French and very 1950s.
Kristine: I mean, there is a dungeon and a girl traipsing around in a (hideous) white dressing gown! That gown… Why does she have to wear that? She is disfigured, not sick with a cold! She can wear like, clothes.
Sean: She is infantilized by her father and Louise. She is trapped in perpetual girlhood. She will never be a “woman.” It’s like a terrible day spent at home sick from the 5th grade with the flu that lasts for an eternity.
Kristine: I don’t think it’s any accident that when Christiane finally decides to rebel, the setting is the operating room. I love how she finally realizes that her father IS the classic mad scientist and not just a penitent father. When Paulette wakes up and sees Christiane sitting there WITH THAT MASK? OMG I died!
Kristine: They should have used that mask for “The Carver” on Nip/Tuck, don’t you think?
Sean: Yes! Poor Paulette. All she did was shoplift a little something and those cops turned her out! I appreciated how Paulette and Christiane’s circumstances paralleled each other – both of them caught up in the machinations of patriarchal figures.
Kristine: The way the cops use Paulette as bait was wack!!! You’re right about all the patriarchal shenanigans. How does Louise, Dr. Génessier’s faithful assistant, fit in to all of that? Explain Louise to me please.
Sean: I ADORE Louise!
Kristine: I was dying when everyone kept describing her as a “handsome woman.”
Sean: Don’t you think she comes off as a classic predatory lesbian? All stalking lovely young girls and picking them up?
Kristine: Oh, TOTALLY!!! Thus the use of the word HANDSOME! I felt more for her when Christiane stabs her and Louise is all, “Why?” and she seems honestly confused and hurt. She is a tragic character.
Sean: I love her Gothic gag of horror as Génessier pickaxes open the cemetery vault to dispose of Edna’s body like trash. This movie has lots of wonderful little attentions to mood and detail, like the passing airplane that goes by in the night sky while that’s happening.
Kristine: What about when he slaps Louise in the crypt because she is actually having emotions about it all?
Sean: I know! She is filled with pathos. She is predatory lesbian meets classic Hollywood henchman meets melodramatic housewife.
Kristine: We know that Génessier “gave her face” back to her. Does that means she has to be his henchman/wifey forever?
Sean: I mean, the movie flirts with the idea that Louise is “in love” with Génessier, though I think the subtext is that she is in love with Christiane. But you’re right that her being stabbed at the end is pathetic and sad, especially because it’s right in the scar from her freaky Frankenstein surgery, that she hides with a GIGANTIC set of dykey pearls (HER BALLS).
Kristine: Ha ha! I totally think she loves Christiane. The movie, cleverly, conflates Louise’s feelings towards Christiane with both motherly love and erotic desire. But I think Louise is also in thrall to Génessier, who is a “great man” in her mind because he repaired her own face. The idea is that Génessier “owns” the people he heals or helps through surgery. It’s one more way that he is able to exert patriarchal control – through science. Medicine becomes just another way of claiming ownership of women’s bodies. I mean, this is what he does with his victims – claims their bodies in the name of science and, I think secondarily, out of devotion to his daughter. If he heals you, he owns you.
Sean: Right. The way Louise is both a victim and a predator makes her, for me, the most interesting character in the movie. It was interesting that SHE picked out the girls and delivered them to Génessier, but after first “seducing” them. In some way Génessier and Louise could be read as pan-sexual/swingers.
Kristine: Agreed. And while Louise is a figure of pathos, Génessier is a pure figure of contempt. He is a classic sociopath in that he actually believes his own bullshit. Remember how Génessier identifies the body that is discovered at the start of the movie as Christiane so that everyone will think she’s dead, but the body really belongs to one of Génessier and Louise’s victims? When Génessier confronts that missing girl’s father outside of the police station, I think he actually believes his own web of lies when he insists to the father that the body belongs to Christiane. In his mind, the body “is” Christiane because that is what it needs to be in order to fit the narrative that Génessier has constructed.
Sean: Oh that bit with the missing girl’s father is heartbreaking. Génessier’s total lack of empathy there marks him as such a bastard. The grief and worry of the girl’s father is so sad. But that’s what I mean about Génessier being scarier than Dr. Heiter. All these cold and calculating little acts of evil he commits, in contrast to these sanctimonious bits of “charity” he dispenses, like his (failed) efforts to save the dying boy. And doesn’t he lie to the dying boy’s mother about her son’s prospects? Just like he lies to Christiane about her new face transplant that turns sour…
Kristine: He is more upset about his surgeries not working than he is about his daughter, obviously. The premise of Eyes Without a Face is like 10,000 times more fucked up than David Lynch and Tom Six put together! Just the surrealism of wearing someone else’s actual face. And Sean, that fucking mask! I can’t with the mask!
Sean: Can we go back to the ending that you said you dug? I agree that it’s brilliant, especially because it’s this mad Gothic/Grimm Brothers ending, with her traipsing off into the woods like some feral heroine from a fairy tale…. Though I have to say, the releasing of the doves was a little on the nose. Because it’s like, SHE was a caged bird but now she’s free! A little silly. Also, there was NO other reason for that elaborate cage full of white doves to be in the dungeon of caged dogs other than for it to play this symbolic role in the finale. It made me roll my eyes a little, even though I do like how the birds link her to these archetypal fairy tale heroines like Snow White or Cinderella. I see this as a bleak ending too, because what is going to become of her out there in the woods?
Kristine: Oh, I know. I wondered the same thing.
Sean: She is this mad thing.
Kristine: I feel like she just disappears into the mist or something…
Sean: She’s going to stalk the hills in THAT MASK and become like the Hill Witch in Don’t Torture a Duckling.
Kristine: Or she goes to see Jacques, her fiancé, and he is all “UGH” and pushes her into the sewer.
Sean: Jacques is HOT.
Kristine: Ha! He is. But maybe a little slow on the uptake, don’t you think?
Sean: You know what they say, Kristine. “Young, dumb and full of cum.”
Sean: I LOVED Christiane’s twisted, Black Christmas-style crank calls to him. If she had started making animal noises to Jacques on the phone, would you have died?
Kristine: Umm, yes. I would be dead right now. Didn’t you feel like it was a rip off that we never got a good, full-on face shot of Christiane’s mangled features?
Sean: Nah. I really liked how the only time we “saw” her face was through Edna’s bleary vision.
Kristine: That was pretty awesome.
Sean: So you know that European audiences in 1960 fainted and puked and ran from the theaters when they saw this movie. It was SUPER controversial.
Kristine: I was surprised at how graphic the facelift scene was, but, really? Sensibilities were that delicate in the ‘60s????
Sean: Yes! That surgery scene had ‘em barfing in the aisles! I mean, I found it pretty hard to watch, to be honest. Every time they clipped one of those surgical clamps onto the edge of Edna’s face, I was kind of dying.
Kristine: It was… It was something.
Sean: What made it worse was Génessier’s overweight horsebreathing through his nose and sweating buckets.
Kristine: HE was disgusting!!!! I love how Génessier was doing it for science and dykey Louise was doing it for love. Classic gender difference, which I didn’t mind in this case because I think the “male” perspective is seen as the most perverse.
Sean: The gender stuff is classic melodrama. I see this movie as a blend of Sirkian melodrama and Hitchcock-style shocker. Didn’t you think the movie was really Hitchcockian?
Kristine: How so?
Sean: Well, I could be biased because I know that Boileau-Narcejac, the writing team who adapted the screenplay for Eyes Without a Face, also wrote the novel that Hitchcock’s Vertigo was based on. But even without that knowledge, I see Hitchcock everywhere in this movie, especially that opening sequence. Louise driving, the body in the backseat, the (accusatory) lights of the cars behind her bearing down.
Kristine: Yeah, I see it. I found it noteworthy that Louise is the one doing all the dirty work – finding the women, caring for them, keeping them alive, then disposing of the bodies. She is intimate with them and he is not.
Sean: Oh totally (though they do team up to dispose of Edna’s body at the cemetery crypt, remember?). What did you make of the musical score? Did you notice it?
Kristine: Apparently not, since I can’t remember it now that you ask.
Sean: It was CRAZY French chanson/circus music with like mad accordian and tweeness. I am SHOCKED you don’t remember!
Kristine: Me, too!
Sean: So a few things about Christiane before we wrap up. Is there a feminist subtext to Christiane’s plight? Or a feminist critique implicit in her “quest for beauty at any cost,” including sacrificing other girls to the endeavor?
Kristine: Do you think she qualifies as a real character? I kind of don’t. Is that even her quest?
Sean: I think she DEF qualifies as a character – why do you not?
Kristine: I guess my answer is in the title. She is the “eyes without a face.” She is seeing all this but can’t act… so she is a proxy for the audience, right? I don’t see her as a protagonist, at least not until the very end and even then she is still semi-passive. Yes, she lets the dogs out but THEY maim and kill her father. She’s just a pair of frail, trembling arms all opening the cages and then delicately doing pirouettes.
Sean: She is absurdly frail.
Kristine: I mean, do you think Christiane is only complicit in what her father is doing until she realizes he is going to continue failing, and only THEN loses “faith” and rebels? Remember how important it was to the Génessier that Christiane and Louise have “faith” in him? That was so gross. God, I hate him!
Sean: Hmmm. Right. She is definitely morally compromised. You’re right to point out that she’s complicit in all the crimes her father and Louise commit in her name. But that’s what I meant about this possibly being a critique of “beauty at any cost,” where Christiane is willing to let the lives of other women be sacrificed in order to restore her face. That’s the way in which she is NOT sympathetic. But I guess my sympathies lie with her when she is framed as a kind of existential hero. Remember when she is lying facedown on her DIVAN and bitterly complaining about the emptiness of her existence? She says, “I’m living [horrible things!” and complains about all the shiny surfaces in the house that betray her by reflecting her face back at her. The environment, the world itself, is her enemy. It is against her. I feel a lot of the pathos in that. Her sense of identity has been shattered by not being able to recognize herself – there’s something fundamentally existential about that. She is frightened by her own face, she tells Louise, but she is frightened even more by the mask that they insist she wear to hide it.
Kristine: What would be scarier: Waking up and seeing Jason Voorhees standing over your bed or seeing Christiane in her mask?
Sean: Ha! I’m going with Jason. If I saw Christiane, I’d just fix her a latte and drape her over a sofa.
Kristine: Stop it!
Sean: I do feel for Christiane in how she is trapped, by her own loss of identity but also by beauty standards, right? The camera follows her as she wanders around the house like a ghost – I like how the movie presents her as a kind of “zombie” or spirit figure – half dead, half alive.
Kristine: The faux funeral that is held for her really drives that point home. When we first meet her, remember, she is traumatized by having read “her” obituary. Christiane (and the movie itself) seems to think that without a face she is as good as dead, that she has no value to society. What is that all about? Can’t she like read books to the blind?
Sean: That’s the possibly feminist critique the movie seems to be making. Wrapped up in the very premise of the movie is this conundrum about “a woman’s face” and what relation it bears to her identity and her ability to live a meaningful life in the world. During this viewing of the film, I kept thinking of the Connecticut woman who had her face torn off by the chimpanzee, or the man whose face was eaten by the bath salts zombie. Wrapped up in the public fascination with those stories are questions about what it means to be recognizable as “human” and the connection between the face and identity. We shudder at those victims’ fates because in some ways they’ve been robbed of their humanity, because their face has been remade into something monstrous and uncanny. I think Eyes Without a Face is playing around with those very questions/anxieties. But it is also more interested in gender. I see the whole reason for Christiane’s quest, from HER point of view, was to be beautiful again in order to get her man back! I thought all her desire was pointed at Hot Jacques.
Kristine: Hmmm. I mean, I think it was to have a life. But to her, at that point in her existence, that meant marrying Jacques. Sure.
Sean: But that’s the whole point! That for many women, the idea of “having a life” is inextricably bound up in their beauty and their ability to fulfill a romance narrative. That’s why, from my point of view, this movie is so invested in the aesthetics of the fairy tale. Those Snow White/Cinderella stories are all about a female protagonist leveraging her innate beauty into a prosperous marriage. Christiane feels robbed because she wants to play that role, live that story. The only real actions she takes in the film, up until the end, are to place those deranged phone calls to Jacques. HE is the foremost thing on her mind. All she wants to do is stare in a mirror at her own beauty and then get railed by Jacques a thousand times a day.
Kristine: What’s so wrong with that?!
Sean: NOTHING! I don’t think she’s “wrong.” But I do think the movie helps us to see how fundamental those narratives are to our identities, and how destabilizing and annihilating it is when we don’t fit those narratives, for whatever reason.
Kristine: “Get railed,” huh?
Sean: Get railed all the way to China.
Sean: Is this movie feminist?
Kristine: I say… I say… I say… YES. And you say?
Sean: I say, probably. I am on the fence a bit. But that moment at the end when Christiane picks up the scalpel and Paulette screams and Christiane cuts her free, that felt like a feminist moment.
Kristine: I agree that when Christiane liberates Paulette, it is a moment. Especially because, as you pointed out, the policeman see Paulette as disposable and use her as a prop in THEIR crime-solving narrative with very little regard for the value of her life. And the movie DEFINITELY sets up a divide between the male/scientific world of rationality and the female/animal world of instinct. Remember Christiane and her rapport with the dogs, whereas Génessier just tells them to shut up?
Sean: Yes. That’s where the movie feels more conservative in its gender roles to me. But I DO like the way it connects Christiane to all these Disney/fairy tale heroines/lost princesses.
Sean: Would you recommend this movie to your mom or your sister? I am curious if you think people with no appetite for horror movies would dig this. Pauline Kael ADORED this movie, just fyi.
Kristine: I would recommend it to them! Though I will divulge that my boyfriend had to turn away during the face transplant.
Sean: I love that he had to turn away and you did not.
Kristine: It was delightful. I was triumphant.
Sean: OMG you are a GOREHOUND now.
Kristine: Ha!!! I worked hard to become this callous!!!
Kristine: I rate this: Batshit insanity AND Bloody wonderful gender exploration and critique. And you?
Sean: I rate it…. Masterpiece. Would May and Christiane be friends?
Sean: I know you hate Christiane’s dressing gown (which was designed by Givenchy, by the way), but I think she’d be a great Halloween costume for some indie girl like May. Some Etsy child.
Kristine: “Some Etsy child” made me sputter with laughter.
Sean: Ha! Do you secretly hate Christiane and think she’s a pouting baby?
Kristine: Sure, part of Christiane is absolutely hateable. Like, tell Jacques you’re alive and to come get you!
Sean: If your face was a mud monster’s gash would you wear her mask?
Kristine: No, I would force Jacques to marry me out of guilt/obligation and make everyone look at my gashface. You?
Sean: I would wear it and scare people. Are you vain about your face? Are you scared of “losing it” by aging? Wrinkles, etc.?
Kristine: Not really… Not yet. I might be in the future, though. You?
Sean: I don’t know. It’s different for men, no? Though the gays loathe all human imperfection. But I am afraid of not recognizing my own face in the mirror one day. If I get to live to be, like, 80. I think Christiane is a metaphor for that fear.
Kristine: Rose McGowan should play Christiane in the remake of this movie.
Sean: With her fallen lids and collapsed nostrils?
Kristine: We need to stop! But, yes.
The Girls Rating: Batshit insanity AND Bloody wonderful gender exploration and critique.
The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece!