A successful plastic surgeon with controversial views on skin grafting; a well-appointed villa that houses a secret operation theatre; a loyal staffer who is a keeper of secrets; a young woman who is the subject of constant experimentation – not Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (2011) but Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960).
The French movie that also inspired the title of one of British punk star Billy Idol’s most well-known songs opens on a dark road where a determined-looking woman is driving a vehicle with a passenger, who is then tipped into a nearby lake. The body is identified as Christiane (Edith Scob), the daughter of plastic surgeon Genessier (Pierre Brasseur). The doctor claims that his daughter killed herself since she could not bear the disfigurement caused to her face in an accident. But Christiane is alive, her burnt visage hidden by a white mask. Her father is capturing young women and transplanting their skin tissue onto Christiane’s face in the hope that she will grow a new visage. Christiane is divided about the horrific experiments. “My face frightens me, my mask frightens me even more,” she tells her father’s secretary (Alida Valli), who is both the procurer of women and the dispatcher of their bodies.
Franju’s best-known films include the crime thriller Judex, in which a masked vigilante kidnaps an unscrupulous banker, and the documentary Blood of the Beasts, which is set in a slaughterhouse and has the power to make vegetarians out of its viewers.
The methodical stripping of flesh from the bone in Blood of the Beasts finds an eerie echo in Eyes Without A Face, one of the earliest films to warn about the ethical problems with plastic surgery and the obsession with blemish-free skin. Franju directs the simple story with economy and flourish, using close-ups beautifully to explore the psychological state of the key characters. Edith Scob is especially haunting as Christiane, her skeletal frame and sad eyes conveying her anguish and ambivalence at her father’s dogged attempts to restore her beauty.
In one of the movie’s most moving scenes, a series of photographs depicts a failed experiment to fix Christiane’s face, proving the inability of human intervention in halting atrophy.
Although Scob has appeared in several French films, and most recently starred in Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come (2016), her performance in Eyes Without a Face proved to be iconic. She showed up with her memorable mask in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012), in which she chauffeurs the lead character around. In the final sequence, Scob reaches for the face shield that still has the ability to haunt the imagination all these years later.