CN: Eyes Without a Face: Horror of reality, oppression and violation

Film Eyes Without a Face (1959) by Georges Franju rouses different kinds of uneasiness, from immediate shocks of gory images to intrinsic anguish coming from more or less hidden suffering of characters. One scene presents this scope the most wholly and also stands out due to its stylistic features. It shows young woman Christiane after her father, famous doctor, tried to transplant her face destroyed in a car accident and did not succeed. The documentary approach to fictive diegesis applied in the scene brings a new sense of reality into the story. The method also conceals most of the emotions and thoughts going behind what we see, and draws all humanity from the creator-work relationship of main characters. It reminds the act of a cinematic violation, gaze of the camera invading into a woman’s privacy that Joan Hawkins discusses on the example of Rape (1969). My analysis should describe these aspects of the scene more deeply and show how they can affect the audience.

After the face transplantation Dr. Genessier, his assistant Louise and Christiane have a dinner. Genessier inspects his daughter’s face, assures her that everything is all right and tells Louise secretly that he failed. The sequence of still images follows. Photographs, probably made by Genessier, document the slow deterioration of Christiane’s face.

EWF1 EWF2 EWF3 EWF4

For the audience, the stills mean a series of culminating shock effects. Genessier’s voiceover accompanies the picture with brief description of the process. As well as during the surgery itself, the style of the cinematography has, as Paul Cronly calls it, the ‘unflinching detachment worthy of a medical documentary’.1 The techniques associated with scientific observation arouse a strong sense of the real. Adam Lowenstein mentions close relationship Franju had with French surrealists who saw the images of crippled devastated bodies of World War II soldiers present in national consciousness.2 Pictures of Christiane are reminiscent of the photographs of war veterans because of her desolated, weary countenance.

Still pictures almost do not leave any space for emotions. We could only guess in which point of the process Christiana realized the truth and what happened after that. Though this moment becomes the turning-point in the film, when Christiana refuses to withstand her father’s control anymore, Genessier talks in a God-like voiceover, never mentioning anything more than the physical state of Christiana whose psyche he completely omits. His voice sounds more and more weary and disappointed. However, the accurate descriptive style of these scenes suggests that he grieves for failure of a significant project of his career, rather than for his daughter.  The absence of humanity in his behaviour makes the scene extremely terrifying.

Christiana is also completely victimized in the scene. Joan Hawkins talks about the camera gaze that has the ability to invade personal space as in case of paparazzi photographers. She picks Rape (1969) by Yoko Ono as an example. Cameraman follows a random girl from the street, chasing her to her apartment and watching her in despair, crying.3 The woman reacted to violating effect of the camera. Similarly, the horror films exploit the victims in the stories in a way attractive to the spectators. Popularity of these movies partly dwells in pleasure of watching human suffering. Maya Deren notices the effort of war photographers to get the most shocking and terrible pictures as the soldiers burned down by the flamethowers.4 We could hardly accept these war films, or the horror genre but for our latent passive cruelty. And this cruelty makes the Genessier’s superior gaze, with its intrinsic violating power, so horrific. He photographs Christiana, locking her face in a silent stillness, invades to her privacy and watches her collapsing self in the form of dead face tissue.

Franju creates a strong uncomfortable feeling going throughout the film. He attains it by using the style associated with documentary that evokes the sense of reality, silencing the oppressed victim Christiana and exposing her to the forcible authority of her father. The creator-work relationship of these characters is revealed by the cinematic means of expression in the scenes of surgery and observing of the decay of Christiana’s face. The latter scene also marks the moment when the violating power of Christiana’s father culminates and initiates her revolt against him. Thus, Franju conveys the intensive thematic and psychological tension in this equally intensive and hardly forgettable scene.

  1. Paul Cronly, ‘Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face)’, Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, 5 (2008).
  2. Adam Lowenstein, ‘Films Without a Face: Shock Horror in the Cinema of Georges Franju’, Cinema Journal, 37 (1998), 37-58 (p. 38).
  3. Joan Hawkins, ‘Exploitation Meets Direct Cinema: Yoko Ono’s Rape and the Trash Cinema of Michael and Roberta Findlay’, in Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pp. 117-139 (p. 122).
  4. Maya Deren, ‘An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film’, in Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren, ed. by Bruce R. McPherson (New York: McPherson & Company, 2005), pp. 35-109 (p. 77).
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