Face Value: Identity and Appearance in EYES WITHOUT A FACE

14 October 2012

14 October 2012

One thing Eyes Without a Face makes clear is how intrinsically linked one’s identity is with one’s appearance, specifically the face.  Although we may think of identity as our uniqueness, inner-self, character, all things which lie deep underneath the surface of our skin, Georges Franju’s film suggests otherwise.  The film highlights the value of appearance, particularly in women, during the late 1950s/early 1960s.  Set in Paris, Eyes Without a Face suggests without appearance there is no identity, and therefore, or inevitably, no existence.

The film begins late one night with a mysterious, yet attractive woman dumping a dead body in the Seine.  From there, cut to a lecture where renowned Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) shares what he believes is the future of skin grafting.  At the end of this lecture, this doctor receives word a body was recently retrieved from the Seine and it may, in fact, be his missing daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob).  Doctor Génessier positively identifies Christiane’s body at the morgue and returns home to his isolated mansion.  There, the mysterious woman from the opening sequence awaits Doctor Génessier’s arrival.  The woman, Louise (Alida Valli), is Doctor Génessier “secretary” (emphasis on the root of the word, ‘secret’) and former patient; Louise received a successful facial transplant from Doctor Génessier.  Upstairs is the real Christiane, who is very much alive, but severely disfigured from an automobile accident; Christiane’s face is almost entirely gone and she wears a mask to cover what is left.  Doctor Génessier—whose experimental medical practice is the result of a severe God-complex—and Louise work together to bring young girls to the mansion, specifically to a hidden operating room off the garage.  Once there, the girls are drugged and their faces removed, all in an effort to transplant a face onto Christiane, restoring the beauty she possessed prior to the car accident.  However, having suffered through several failed attempts, Christiane’s hopes for restored beauty fade, and she begins to wish she was dead, just as the world believes her to be.  When confronted with yet another surgery, and another young look-alike who will lose her life in this twisted ritual, Christiane rebels, ending her father and Louise’s monstrous medical game for good.

Before addressing Christiane, the character through which Franju conducts his boldest exploration between identity and appearance, there are secondary characters, all women, designed to explore the relationship between the two.  First is Louise, who the audience knows received a successful face transplant by Doctor Génessier.  At Christiane’s “funeral,” people wonder who Louise is; they know very little about her, only deducing she is Doctor Génessier’s secretary, she entered his life sometime in the past four years (after the death of his wife), and she is assumed a foreigner.  Considering this information about Louise is discussed at a funeral for a girl the audience knows is alive, meaning depict is ripe in the air, the question becomes, how credible is the information we know about Louise?  Not very.  Might she be Doctor Génessier’s wife who supposedly died four years ago?  Likely, Louise is the same woman these people have known for years, the wife to Doctor Génessier and mother to Christiane, who allowed the doctor to experiment on her.  People at the funeral don’t know Louise because her appearance is different, and with it comes a new identity.

Moreover, once Edna (Juliette Mayniel) loses her face, when Doctor Génessier’s attempts to transplant it onto his daughter, she loses her identity.  While trying to escape her capture at the mansion, and all bandaged up, concealing what was formerly her face, Edna jumps from a high window and kills herself.  She has been stripped of her appearance, but not given a new one, like Louise.  Thus, without an appearance, she has no identity, and ultimately does not exist.  Doctor Génessier and Louise bury Edna’s body in the mausoleum people believe Christiane’s body is buried in.  Edna is erased.

Even the girl in the beginning, the one Louise disposes of in the Seine, who Doctor Génessier falsely claims as his “missing” Christiane, loses her identity because she is faceless.  The audience knows this girl is Simone, a missing Parisian, but because Doctor Génessier removes her appearance and re-identifies her as Christiane, her true identity is lost, and she, too, ceases to exist.

Finally, Christiane clearly loses her identity when she loses her face.  Doctor Génessier and Louise hide Christiane away from the world, embarrassed by her appearance and determined to restore her physical beauty before lettering her out of the mansion.  A funeral is held and death notices printed; Christiane is dead, she no longer exists, and that is all because she loses her coveted appearance.

Yet, Christiane is not actually deceased; she lingers in a limbo between her former self and the self her father and Louise want her to become.  She is wounded physically and emotionally, and imprisoned in the mansion.  All Christiane can do is wander from room to room, grappling with this limbo, secretively searching for a mirror to see what’s left of her face.  Of course, she cannot find one.  First, all the mirrors have been removed.  But, perhaps more importantly, what Christiane is looking for, herself reflected, she would never be able to find.  Her identity as Christiane is gone, along with her face, and therefore what she wants to see no longer exists.   The only thing Christiane finds is a painting of herself, one, presumably, done prior to her accident.  In this painting Christiane sees herself, with a beautiful face, surrounded by doves, looking radiant.

This painting is all Christiane has to reflect her existence.  Beyond the physical torture of living with a father and, presumed, mother, who force their daughter to undergo extensive and painful medical procedures, Christiane’s parents are also causing her an identity crisis; she is Christiane, but, because of Doctor Génessier and Louise’s actions, Christiane no longer exists.  When she reaches her breaking point, Christiane thinks back to this painting and becomes the appearance she saw reflected back at her.  Through that painting, Christiane finds the identity she lost and reclaims it.  Having released Paulette (Beatrice Altariba), the latest victim Louise lured to the mansion, stabbing Louise to death in the neck with a scalpel, and releasing all her father’s dogs, Christiane opens the doves’ cage and sets them free.  A few doves fly to her hands and arms and she walks outside with them.  Once outside, the painting has come to life and Christiane floats, radiantly, into the woods, with the doves still surrounding her, just as she saw reflected to her on the canvas.

Eyes Without a Face is a complex film, expressing several themes and ideas, and one that it is primarily concerned with is the link between appearance and identity.  Appearance reflects identity, and Eyes Without a Face takes that further, suggesting without an appearance to reflect it, identity does not exists; appearance is essential to identity.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 14/10/2012.

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