Franju demonstrates how beauty hides pain, until pain becomes beautiful.
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Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage/Eyes Without a Face is a reliably haunting film, a beautiful nightmare about post-trauma identity. Premiering in 1960, the same year that Alfred Hitchcock’s (thematically similar though arguably inferior) Psycho appeared, Eyes Without a Face displays a precise slicing, while Psycho indulges blackout stabbing. Where Hitchcock creates suspense, Franju structures dread, the former concealing information from the characters, the latter concealing information from the audience. It’s not only what Franju leaves us to piece together, it’s his orchestra of camera techniques that entrances, particularly his unnerving use of the POV shot.
When Jean-Luc Godard said that the POV is the most natural cut in cinema, he was talking about the anxiety we feel when we see a character looking at something outside the frame, relieved by an accompanying shot that discloses their point of view, the camera becoming a stand-in for the character’s eyes. Godard chose the word “natural” because human nature dictates this aesthetic order as a logical imperative. The internal disturbance that is effected by witnessing someone’s diverted attention is primal. It awakens our mysterious survival instincts, and so, as a cinematic tool, it’s especially at home in horror.
The fear of being pursued. Moving ahead while looking behind. The trope of a car’s rearview mirror, via the driver’s POV, is exploited in the opening sequence of Eyes Without a Face. In Psycho, it happens fifteen minutes in. Hitchcock capitalizes on our general aversion to prying policemen, as Marion (Janet Leigh) flees the city with a wad of stolen cash. Her paranoia is matched by Franju’s woman behind the wheel. The driver (Alida Valli, whom we will soon know as Louise, the faithful assistant to the story’s villain) is seen, like Marion, with head-on framing. A static POV of the rearview mirror is activated when Louise’s hand enters the frame to adjust the reflection, swiveling the mirror so she/we can see the eerie figure on the backseat. The choreographed negotiation within this POV reveals the mysterious object of Louise’s unease. What we have yet to work out is that the dead girl, whom Louise now pulls from the car and pushes into the river, was abducted and tortured by having her face cut off.
Next, we meet the villain, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), lecturing to a distinguished crowd in a baroque hall. He has pioneered an experimental procedure involving “the transfer of living tissue or organs from one human to another.” As the esteemed doctor departs the stage, a clerk informs him that he’s wanted at the morgue.
Attended by the scraping of footsteps, the camera assumes Génessier’s POV, moving down a hallway. A somewhat jarring dissolve in the POV’s trajectory pushes forward his/our approach to the morgue’s identification room. The shadow of his homburg quickly slides across the opening door, and, panning and tracking into the room, the POV ends as a shrouded gurney comes into view. The coroner folds the sheet back to expose the head, which remains hidden in the composition. Because of Génessier’s preceding POV, we now expect another, namely his perspective of the desecrated corpse’s face. But the camera stays at a disappointing distance as he declares, “It’s her. Christiane.” This must be the name of his missing daughter. Although there’s a sense that he is lying, a presumption that won’t be confirmed for another ten minutes.
Génessier arrives at his chateau and climbs several staircases before stopping at a garret door. Inside the room, another panning and tracking POV starts at a tall birdcage, white doves inside, before moving toward Christiane (Édith Scob), lying face down on a divan. Kneeling beside her, he attempts to console his daughter, disfigured in a car crash, the result of his road rage. Father and daughter are interrupted by Louise, who lovingly installs a featureless mask over Christiane’s unseen face.
Unlike Franju’s, Hitchcock’s POVs work mainly to emphasize information already provided. Having introduced Marion’s conflict, she is shown packing a suitcase in her bedroom. The scene begins with a stylized shot of the envelope containing the $40,000 that she has apparently decided to steal. When Marion pauses and looks away, thinking of what to pack next in her suitcase, Hitchcock resists the cut, instead panning to follow her around the room. He saves the cut primarily for the POV shots of her gaze returning to the money on the bed.
In Eyes Without a Face, Louise cruises Paris. She befriends a young college student and lures her to the chateau, where the girl is quickly chloroformed by Génessier and carried to his dungeon. Curious about the captive, Christiane sneaks down. The camera is behind her as she arrives at a large metal door and slides it open. A shot of her masked face gives no indication of her emotions. What comes next is a POV shot of her scanning her father’s operating room. The room is bright yet dank, meticulous and makeshift. Edna’s dress and high heels lie on a sheet-covered couch. Panning left, there’s a sink, a drip stand, a cabinet, a medical lamp, and two surgical tables. Strapped to one of them is Edna. All of a sudden, Christiane enters the frame, walking into the room. In this instance, we are pushed out of the character’s subjectivity and returned to the camera’s objectivity, all without an edit. Franju betrays the conceit of the POV in order to disconcert, and his misdirection succeeds, foremost, on a subliminal level.
Having subdued the whimpering dogs in the adjoining kennel, Christiane returns and removes her mask. She stands over Edna and caresses the sleeping face of her fellow captive, a beautiful face that will soon become her own. Then, before you can say knife, Edna’s eyes blink open and she lurches forward with a terrified scream. At this point, Franju switches to Edna’s appropriately out-of-focus POV. We are now looking through her eyes at a blurry Christiane, at a strange and monstrous face, made all the more alarming by the subjective impressionism of the shot.
When it comes to the POV shots in Psycho, probably the first that comes to mind is the one that advertises Norman’s voyeurism. In his parlor, he removes a painting and peeps through his secret hole in the wall at Marion undressing next door. This is the indiscretion that identifies her as a fetish object for Norman’s carnality, triggering his violent alter ego. He is the abused son. Christiane is the abused daughter.
After the infamous grotesquerie of the surgery scene, where Génessier carefully slices Edna’s face with his scalpel and removes it from her skull, we see a bandaged Edna, sequestered in a cell. Not only has she survived this brutality, she somehow has the resolve to bonk Louise on the head with a bottle and run away. Unfortunately, she runs upstairs and leaps from an attic window to the pavement below. Edna’s resourceful breakout and frenzied rush to death are romantic not just in their performance but in the residue of the forever-young memory she leaves behind. And our compassionate connection to her was inspired by shots that assumed her POV. First, as she gazed at the Eiffel Tower for the last time before being tricked by Louise, then, outside the chateau, as she stood looking forebodingly up at the window from which she would later plunge, and finally, as she witnessed Christiane’s murky and mutilated face.
Louise and the doctor bring Edna’s corpse to the cemetery at night. Génessier plans to dump the body in the family crypt, but first he must pry away a heavy slab. Wielding a pickax, he repeatedly strikes the concrete, causing Louise to cover her ears. As she lifts her hands away, she hears a buzzing and looks up. Her POV is a ruthlessly composed shot of a passenger jet, moving slowly between patches of clouds in the night sky. Though it resembles a cross and signifies technology, the plane contributes to the scene’s ambiance without any symbolic necessity, irony, or insight. As with Louise’s earlier POV of the passing train that delayed her delivery of Edna to the doctor, these textural intrusions of mass transit exist as atmospheric counterpoints. They are momentary distractions that remind us that there are other stories out there, but (like the film’s characters) we are trapped in this one.
A different kind of counterpoint transpires in Psycho’s iconic shower scene. After the accelerated editing of the knife attack that kills Marion, Hitchcock initiates a POV callback that highlights her sudden absence. When Marion begins her shower, she looks directly into the showerhead as it sprays little streams of water just outside the circumference of the lens, that is, her eyes. Then, following her excruciating death by knifing, we see the same shot repeated. The previously subjective has become situationally objective. As a POV, the shot conveyed the vulnerability of Marion’s distraction, while the shower itself symbolized her decision to come clean, to return home with the money and face the consequences. Seeing the shot a second time reminds us that this was, and will be, her last POV. Marion is gone now. Coldly rotating before her lifeless face, the camera confirms this.
In Psycho’s slasher scenes, the camera becomes as irrational as Norman’s murderous, costumed attacks, where he transfers his own victimhood. The violence we see in Eyes Without a Face remains measured and pragmatic. In both narratives, the trauma emerges from a controlling, narcissistic parent. Génessier’s cult is now assembled at the dinner table, where the façade of normality purports to erase the psychotic reality. He has finally made his daughter, like Louise before her, seemingly whole by making her literally presentable. The ethereal beauty of actress Édith Scob is startling as she sits unmasked, the refurbished object of wonder.
“When I look in the mirror,” she says, bewildered by the hybrid persona her father has created for her, “I feel I’m looking at someone who looks like me but seems to come from the Beyond.”
That night, Christiane dreamily appraises her new face in a mirror. But we never see the mirror, because this POV is unannounced. Christiane’s eyes are looking directly into ours, yet we understand that she is looking into her own sublime, secondhand reflection. It’s as if she’s peering through the mirror/camera/audience and into, as she says, the Beyond.
This shot freezes and dissolves into a portrait-style photograph of her. In the film’s only voice-over, Génessier reads entries from his medical journal that correspond with the increasingly hideous headshots of his daughter as her face rots away, rejecting the skin graft. These still images, in a way, remain POV shots, as we can assume that it was her father who took and privately developed these photographs, which function sequentially as a staccato time-lapse of Génessier’s failure.
In Psycho, Norman’s potential for failure, in the scene where he disposes of evidence, epitomizes the tension and release of the POV. Marion’s car, with her body in the trunk, slowly sinks into a black bog. Before it disappears completely, though, it stops. A reverse shot displays Norman’s heart-dropping concern. The bog begins to gurgle again, and the car is now swallowed whole. The complimentary shot of Norman’s relieved expression is risible, and when he smirks it’s almost as if he’s implicating us for having fallen for Hitchcock’s mischievous manipulation.
Returning to Génessier’s dungeon, the undeterred doctor is preparing to operate on yet another abductee (Paulette, played by Beatrice Altariba) when he is rudely interrupted. He walks across the property to dispatch the ineffectual detectives, telling them he knows nothing of this missing girl. The sedated Paulette, meanwhile, has awakened in fright. In her uncanny mask, Christiane slowly approaches. She lifts her father’s scalpel and, amidst Paulette’s screams, severs the restraints. Having heard the commotion, Louise bursts in. Christiane’s eyes grow wide and she stabs Louise in the throat, killing her and allowing Paulette to make a run for it. Christiane’s mutiny continues as she enters the kennel and opens every cage door. The dogs escape into the night air and immediately encounter Génessier. They pounce on their master as a vicious pack. The cacophony of barking and the quick cuts of the mauling make this defining instance of poetic justice as unsettling as it is thrilling.
Eyes Without a Face ends with this action-heavy climax that concludes in a stupefying openness. Christiane walks past her dead father and into the dark woods, with white doves fluttering about her in elegiac union. Unlike in Psycho, where Norman becomes a patient for a psychiatrist with all the answers, here we understand Christiane’s torment because we have seen it. So she ascends to a heroic myth, rather than a sober case study. Franju demonstrates how beauty hides pain, until pain becomes beautiful. Hitchcock’s film ends with an exposition-heavy falling-action sequence so clunky that most viewers don’t even remember it. Psycho’s conclusion is a five-minute monologue by a Freudian who asserts that Norman’s bad behavior can be blamed on repressed family trauma. The unhealthy parent that is overthrown by Christiane, in Eyes Without a Face, is conversely integrated by Norman, in Psycho. Both films expose the horrifying extremes that can be hidden by the social mask, but the arc in Franju’s film maintains an uncommon grace, as he ascribes a consistently disorienting poetry to the camera lens, which is, of course, an eye without a face.