‘Il faut se contenter de cette chiennerie’. As even Dr Génessier has to reluctantly admit, grafting bits of stray dogs onto each other is a lot easier than replacing your daughter’s face ruined in a car crash. If monstrous self-confidence made him a dangerous driver, it at least made him a brilliant surgeon, no? We first see Génessier delighting a respectable bourgeois crowd with solemn talk of the technical difficulties involved in skin grafts. For an audience caught up in the narrative of science’s heroic efforts to benefit humanity, the language of ‘irradiation’ and ‘exsanguination’ is as sterile, and bloodless, as the procedures it refers to. But the opening scene has already shown us how the messy stuff is disposed of: while the doctor is lecturing, Alida Valli’s Louise drives to a remote stretch of the Seine to dump the faceless body of an abducted girl. Louise is more than happy to do the doctor’s dirty work, for he has given her back her face; and harvesting suitable transplant subjects for Génessier’s poor daughter Christiane from Paris cinema queues is a small price to pay.
Franju’s film is not, however, about undermining the dry scientific façade with gore and violence. Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans visage) presents a clinical Gothic: the horror is in the surface itself, in the calm and sterility of procedure. The encounter of scalpel and skin releases a little blood, but not an excess; only enough to sketch with icy precision a commedia dell’arte mask. Parting this from the poor girl’s face produces a rare moment of texture. Mostly, the surface of the film is as horribly smooth as Christiane’s porcelain mask. Flat middle tones dominate, producing a world seemingly without depth. One is sometimes surprised to see a character walk into a space one could have sworn was a backdrop, and location shots have rarely looked so airless. The only play on the surface of undifferentiated grey matter comes in peripheral disturbance; shadows from multiple light sources, and areas of glowing hangover white. Everything behaves like marble.
And the pace is funereal: the doctor paces around, expressionless, with painfully slow deliberation, a slave to his own self-esteem. Christiane, gliding about in white mask and even weirder white satin housecoat, with the jerking movements of a melancholic android, is of a piece with the backdrop, emerging out of it like a materialised genius of place. Until the very end, she has not a word to say against the destruction of other girls just like her. If only she can have a face again. And when she does briefly have one, actress Edith Scob manages to make it look like another mask. ‘Smile!’ commands the doctor, and the stolen face smiles; ‘Not too much!’ he adds, and it is impossible not to fear the flap of skin we so recently saw flopping into a kidney dish is about to come unstuck. Which of course it does, in the end.