As the camera pans down a line of people on a sidewalk in Paris waiting to buy theater tickets, an attractive middle-aged woman approaches Edna Gruber, a Swiss college student played by Juliette Mayniel. The woman, whose name is Louise, has an extra ticket. There’s something a little shady about Louise, who’s played by real-life Italian aristocrat Alida Valli. She’s polite, but pushy, and overbearing. Edna is naive, timid, unaware of just how much danger she’s in, for Louise is not a ticket scalper or a lesbian pickup artist. She’s an assistant to Doctor Génessier, the film’s villain, a cultured French precursor to Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill.
The next morning, Louise and Edna meet in a cafe. Edna’s been looking for a rented room. Louise has one in mind. She offers to drive her new friend out to the house where it’s located. The house, Doctor Génessier’s palatial chateau, is far out in the suburbs. As the two women drive along, Edna finally starts to get suspicious. There’s something not quite right about Louise. The further Louise drives her away from Paris, the more nervous Edna gets. We, the audience, have already seen what evil Louise is willing to do to serve her master. We know that Edna is, in fact, already dead. What makes Eyes Without a Face so terrifying is how her consciousness catches up with ours. During the drive out to Génessier’s chateau, George Franju, the film’s director, has put us into the shoes of the victim. By the time she meets Génessier, all Edna wants to do is go back to Paris and never see him, or Louise, again. Neither do we. The hair on my body stood up as I waited for the inevitable end of Edna Gruber. Get out of there, I kept saying to myself. “Get out of there.” Edna makes a weak protest. “I need to get back to Paris early so I can meet my friend tomorrow,” she says. We know she’s not going to make that appointment. “Tomorrow will be too late,” Louise responds.
What happens to Edna in Génessier’s chateau is a fate worse than death, although it does, of course, include death. At the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1960, 7 people fainted, prompting Franju to remark that “he now knew why Scotsmen wore skirts.” Doctor Génessier, a wealthy bourgeoisie scientist who, like all bourgeoisie, worships his household gods, worships the image of himself in his daughter, Christiane, a young woman whose face had been horribly disfigured in a car crash. Génessier, a renowned plastic surgeon who’s an expert in “the heterograft” — grafting the skin of one living person onto another — has had Louise harvest Edna as the raw material for his attempt to restore his Christiane’s beautiful face. The experiment turns out to be a failure, thank God. Had it succeeded, it would have meant a brave new world for the wealthy and privileged. They would have had been able to exploit the working class, not only for their labor power, but for the very skin on their bodies.
Eyes Without a Face had been carefully written to get by the French, German, and British censors. The Scotsmen who fainted in Edinburgh testify to the power of the uncut version of the film. But Franju could not get his masterpiece by the American censors. For its release in the United States, Eyes Without a Face was butchered, dubbed in English, and re-dubbed with the absurd title “The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.” Until 2003, when it was finally restored, and released on DVD with subtitles, the closest an American could get to the original “Eyes Without a Face” was a Billy Idol song.
But why? Americans, even in 1960, have never had a problem with violent horror movies, or with violent movies in general. What about Eyes Without a Face not only made Scotsman pass out, but was considered too disturbing for Americans to see at all? In my opinion it has something to do with how Eyes Without a Face is not only a profoundly creepy and disturbing film, but a profoundly moral film. American horror films like Silence of the Lambs or the endless parade of slasher movies from the 1980s, tend to have a contemptuous attitude towards victims and a not so hidden admiration for the mass murderer. The serial killer/slasher, in many American horror films, is a representation of the patriarchal male, the capitalist, the superman. Jason, in the Friday the 13th series, punishes naughty school girls for losing their virginity. Hannibal Lecter is a culture hero, the civilized white man, the heir to three thousand years of western civilization. If Buffalo Bill in the Silence of the Lambs is taken down by a women, it’s important to remember that the woman, Clarice Starling, is also a cop, an FBI agent in a film that had been part of a series of movie scripts — along with Married to the Mob, Mississippi Burning, and The Untouchables —written to rehabilitate the bureau’s reputation after the Church Committee’s report on Cointelpro. The police in Franju’s film, by contrast, are bumbling fools. They coerce a young woman — who they had earlier arrested for shoplifting — into acting as “bait.” Then they carelessly leave her to her death after they decide that Génessier wasn’t their man after all.
Most importantly of all, is the way Génessier is finally brought down, not by the police, or by a traditional male hero, but by his daughter, the supposed beneficiary of his horrible series of murders. Christiane, played by Edith Scob, last seen as the hero’s tall, elegant, white-haired chauffeur in Leos Carax’s masterpiece Holy Motors, refuses to inherit the earth at the expense of the exploited female proletariat. She becomes, in effect, like all those privileged young people in the 1960s who rebelled against their parents, said that no, they wouldn’t support the French, then the American empire as it committed genocide in Vietnam. The incessant barking, the pack of dogs Génessier keeps in his basement, turns out to be a primal scream for help. The dogs aren’t guard dogs or vicious attack dogs. They’re guinea pigs. Christiane only develops a sense of empathy for her father’s would-be final victim because, all through the movie, she had been listening to the dogs howling in pain, because she had heard the cry of nature against a corrupt, totalitarian scientific “reason.” In the justly celebrated final scene, we completely forget that Christiane is a disfigured monster. As Génessier’s pack of dogs get their revenge, she becomes angelic, a resurrected spirit freed from the clutches of the devil, her father.
Louise, on the other hand, gets what she deserves.