The hauntingly beautiful and mesmerizing 1960 film Eyes Without a Face, directed by Georges Franju, is a timeless horror classic that has drawn from classics like Frankenstein and has inspired countless films like Pedro Almodóvar’s 2011 film The Skin I Live In that deal with identity, rebirth, the male gaze and mutilation. Georges Franju had made his mark as a documentary filmmaker with his 1949 documentary, Blood of the Beasts documenting the brutal reality of slaughterhouses in Paris. In many ways the brutality of reality translates into Eyes Without a Face, a candid depiction of the cost of beauty, disposability of women and the search for the fountain of youth. The twisted dynamic between Dr. Génesser, Louise (whose true identity is ambiguous), and the doctor’s daughter, Christiane, reflects the constant idealization of women and their worth reliant on the perceived loss of beauty over time.
The mutilated face of an unknown woman is slightly slouched over in the back seat as the mysterious Louise drives on a dark road to toss her body into a lake. The light from the car reflects off of her shiny black coat; she’s an agent of death complicit in disposing of young nameless girls. Louise, whose identity is unknown, is complicit in this process because she has received the gift of youth and a new life. As a result, she has been robbed of any agency or identity and what’s known about her is solely constructed by Dr. Génessier.
Shortly after, Dr. Génessier speaks to a crowded room of mostly older and presumably wealthy people about skin rejuvenation. As he continues to discuss the possibilities of his revolutionary youth rejuvenation in which he uses living tissue that would merge with the patient’s skin, the camera pans to an enormous mirror that rests behind Génessier. This throwaway scene sets the foundation of the film regarding the evolution of the beauty industry and the ongoing disposability of women. The doctor’s daughter is like Rapunzel, isolated from the world and locked in a tower.
Christiane struggles with her own identity after a horrific accident left her face unrecognizable and horribly scarred. She refuses to wear a mask after a failed face transplant and discovering her own death certificate. Her father views her identity as disposable and uses her body for experimentation for his own potential glory in the medical field. Prompted by being forced to accept her own death, Christiane has an awakening. The idealized version of herself hangs in the dining room as a constant reminder of her lost beauty and humanity. The painting illustrates her surrounded by doves in a white gown staring away from the viewer. There are no mirrors, only an angelic vision of her (which is objectively worse than having mirrors). This idealized version of Christiane functions exactly the way beauty ads do, they present a fantasy version of yourself that does not exist but that you will inevitably strive for from societal pressure. Not only does this mimic beauty ads but it’s an extension of the male gaze, the doctor and Louise constantly remind her she must wear her mask until they find her a new face. Although it can be argued that Christiane is complicit in her father’s brutal experiments, it is her father who has robbed her of an identity to begin with and exploits her desire to connect with society again. She has little choice but to remain trapped in a vicious cycle of unattainable beauty that is reinforced by her father and Louise. They serve as a constant reminder to Christiane that she will fall prey to society’s rejection while masking it with concern.
Once another girl is captured, Christiane’s face is met with horror which reaffirms the necessity for the surgery. The surgery is successful for a brief time during which she is treated humanely. The mirrors in the house are uncovered, her father shows her more affection, and the possibility of a normal life is just within reach. But even in this brief moment, Christiane appears neither happy nor content; it’s not clear whether she feels guilt from another murdered woman, or if the person she once was is completely gone, or both. It becomes clear that she has more in common with the women whose faces she took because they weren’t valued either; just pretty faces captured before their beauty fades.
The three captured women share similar physical features: They are young and beautiful, brown hair, blue eyes. They possess features that exhibit the beauty standard. It’s the fountain of youth for which that crowded room (society, I guess we live in one) is willing to pay a hefty price. Similar to the juxtaposition of slaughtered animals with rich Parisian life, Georges Franju juxtaposes the wealthy with the horrors of a doctor working tirelessly to put a price on vanity at the expense of women’s bodies. At one point even the police are complicit by placing a woman into a dangerous situation in exchange for dropping arrest charges. Dr. Génessier reassures the detectives that she had gone home, and immediately the detectives assume it’s a dead end…while the woman lies strapped to an operating table. After complete rejection, Christiane frees the woman out of guilt and sympathy. The climactic ending is poetic and cathartic; Christiane gets revenge and walks into the forest tossing her mask to the side forging her own identity with self acceptance. Eyes Without a Face is a film about the horrors of life and cost of vanity, Christiane is fleeting beauty forced to chase a fantasy version of herself and forced to believe that her value rests on that fantasy.
In 2019, nearly 60 years later the film remains relevant and horrific given that little has changed in how women are valued. The disposability of women in conjunction with value in youthfulness is at the heart of fashion, film and makeup. The pressure to appease the beauty standard is isolating and heavy. Christiane’s struggle to accept herself within a harsh environment will always be relatable.