Seeking to isolate and theorise the source of her disturbance upon initially viewing Les Yeux sans visage, Elizabeth Cowie turns to Lacan's psychoanalytic account of desire to explore the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of horror cinema.[*]
The pleasure/unpleasure of repetition
It's an anguish film. It's a quieter mood than horror, something more subjacent, more internal, more penetrating. It's horror in homeopathic doses.
Georges Franju's comments here on his Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, France, 1959) suggest an approach to horror which, perhaps not coincidentally, closely relates to Jacques Lacan's view of anxiety:
in my experience, it is necessary to canalise it [anxiety] and, if I may say so, to take it in small doses, so that one is not overcome by it. This is similar to bringing the subject into contact with the real.
Homeopathy—established on the principle of "Let likes cure likes"—seeks to heal through the similar, prescribing a remedy that will cause the symptom in a healthy person, and thus in the ill body stimulate it to restore itself to health. Yet for psychoanalysis this cannot be a form of innoculation against or resistance to anxiety, or the real, as if it were a pathogen which could be removed. The experiencing of "small doses" must, rather, bring about some accommodation with the real of anxiety, circumscribing anxiety so that it no longer floods the subject or defines every encounter with others in reality as always being in the service of the jouissance of the Other.
The horror film's monstrous figures of abjection and scenes of terrifying destruction and chaos, in engaging us in a compulsive return to look, to watch, to know what we dread, snare us in the uncanny, in the pleasure/unpleasure of repetition. That is, snare us in the repeated re-encounter of the jouissance of the Other which I serve insofar as I find my enjoyment, my jouissance, in the desire of the Other, and resist by attempting to master the Other, to abject her. What is required is not the destruction of the monstrous Other—as we know, she always returns! Rather what is necessary is a re-figuring of my relation to the desiring Other through symbolisation and not as jouissance.
It is in enabling us to encounter a little bit of the real and memorialise it that I want to place the ethics of the horror film. It is ethical because it allows us to move from ensnarement by jouissance to symbolisation (in which the aesthetics, and comedy, of the horror film are also important). What is made possible is a distinction between, rather than an identification of, the horror of violent destruction enacted on our fellow human beings, and the traumatic terror of the real of jouissance. Squeamishness, I suggest therefore, is not at all an ethical response but on the contrary a symptom of an anxious enjoyment in unpleasure. Such an ethical as well as an aesthetic dimension to horror in cinema is suggested by the "tenderness" Raymond Durgnat finds in Franju's violent films,
It is easy enough to be tender in erotic or amiable circumstances… Hence the desperate rarity and the almost prophetic power of artists who, like Franju, can remain tender in the face of brutality and loss, who can maintain a tender pessimism. As Franju has commented, his most violent films are the most tender, because the more tender you are the more you feel the violence, and it's in the face of violence that tenderness is more extreme. Franju's is not at all a savage eye; his toughness is stoic, his vision as tender as can bear the truth.
I had not, however, found such tenderness on my own first viewing of Les Yeux sans visage. On the contrary, it has figured as a traumatic memory for me.
"The bloody wound of the left-behind"
The very title of the film is gruesome—its words institute a cruel verbal play, for how does one imagine eyes without a face? Perhaps as separated organs lying on a table, an image whose more horrifying correlative for me is of the empty eye sockets from which these ocular globes have been wrenched. Or should the focus be on the missing face as setting for the eyes? Here what is meant is not the displacement of the eyes from their proper place/face, but the displacement of the setting itself. But what is behind the face?
For me, upon seeing the film for the first time it was a nameless dread. Perhaps, to give it words now—the bloody wound of the left-behind. Of course actually it is a lot of scar tissue, maybe suppurating, tight and uncomfortable, but not missing. The punning title still produces an uncanniness for me, as did a recent newspaper headline stating "Healthcare trust to ask patients to donate 'surplus' skin for research at Porton Down"—how does skin become surplus? The uncanny power of words is evident here, and indeed the visual is no more powerful than the word for it is not immanent but read, that is, cognitively apprehended through memory, and thus the visual is already coded.
The horror of the film is not merely the ripped face, it is also its suspense story. It is, however, not suspense as such which produces traumatic horror—suspense is after all not only an intellectual affair, but also a fundamental feature of narrative; rather it is the threat suspended of, not death itself, and not simply loss, but of a devouring, of the appropriation of what is the self by another. The film stages the traumatic real of the desire of the Other. The film commences—suspensefully—with a beautiful woman driving at night, nervously watching the road and other cars, as well as a male-attired figure slumped in the back seat. She pulls off the road and drags out what is now clearly not only a dead but also a woman's body, abandoning it to the nearby river's dark waters.
The film suspends the question of whose body it is, instead cutting to a lecture by eminent plastic surgeon, Professor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), in which he describes extraordinary new possibilities for his craft and art, after which he is called by the police to identify a body which may be his missing daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob). The film has, of course, also suspended the question of who owns the eyes without a face, and it now appears to answer this, for the Professor positively identifies the body, with its awful torn face, as his daughter.
As he leaves he passes by the anxious father of another missing woman, who asks for reassurance that it is indeed Christiane. The Professor's affirmative answer is of course a snare—which we may already have conjectured—for the body was in fact the other father's daughter. But the film delays further solutions and cuts instead to Christiane's funeral, which is marked not only by the strangeness of the lighting and camera placings of its mise-en-scène but also by the appearance of the woman-driver in the opening scene, who is revealed as Louise (Alida Valli), the Professor's "secretary," and who displays obvious discomfort and an urgent desire to leave.
The subsequent scene resolves these questions while setting in train the next sequence of actions. We are given Génessier's PoV as he enters a room in his home, seeing first caged doves (marking their first association with Christiane), then a woman lying on a day bed, her back to the camera. The next shot shows Génessier beside the woman; he turns off a radio and picks up what is revealed as a notice for his daughter's funeral. "Where did you find this?" he says, "I don't like the way you poke into everything," confirming that the woman is his daughter but also that he has not yet told her what he has done.
As she turns to him he suddenly says—realising its absence—"Your mask, you must get into the habit of wearing it," suggesting his own horror (Christiane later tells Louise in a whisper that "my face frightens me, my mask terrifies me even more"). To Christiane's querying his use of the term "habit" he declares that he will give her a new face, saying "I shall succeed. I promise you." But Christiane retorts, "I don't believe that anymore," to which Génessier angrily responds, "You have no reason to doubt me—I am a man of distinction, am I not? You shall have a real face, I pledge my word."
Relays of desire
It is Louise who has sought young women students (as I was) as potential sources for the new face Professor Génessier seeks for his horribly damaged daughter—injuries she sustained in a car crash which, Christiane claims, he caused by his obsessive need to dominate, saying "even on the road, he drives like a demon." Instituted here is a relay of desire, for Louise does not seek these women's faces for herself, but for Christiane; nevertheless, in this she doubles not Christiane's but Génessier's desire, both his professional ambitions and his desire to remake his daughter's beauty and thereby erase his own failure.
Christiane's disfigured face represents to her father not only a challenge for his professional skills in which, if he succeeds, he will also gain the prestige he so much desires. It also constitutes the real of his desire, the jouissance of his power over the image, eradicating the defacement of time, fate or nature; it is a fetishising of the flaw—gone in a (re)making of The Woman Beautiful. Christiane's desire mirrors her father's: wanting the face he will give her, to be beautiful again. However, in also wishing to be beautiful for Jacques (François Guérin), her fiancé, Christiane's desire places her beyond her father's jouissance.
Louise meanwhile remains held by the her desire for the desire of the Other, such that she will act against her own moral feelings. After the transferral of Edna's (Juliette Mayneil) face, Louise reports to Génessier on Christiane's progress, saying "This time she believes." He replies, "I was so afraid," to which Louise responds, "Don't be. I, too, believe this time." Here the role of remaking Christiane for Génessier is revealed: it is both cause of his desire and able to evoke utter fear (anxiety) in him. He says, "I can only hope. To achieve such a thing… God, it would be beyond price. I have done so much wrong to perform this miracle. I have done you a great wrong too." Louise's reply acknowledges this: "I know, but I shall never forget that I owe my face to you" (the only trace remaining of her scars are hidden by the pearl choker she always wears).
It is not, however, simple gratitude for her regained beauty that causes Louise to help destroy other women's faces. For while the film clearly suggests that she suffers great anguish as a result of her actions, she also enjoys them insofar as she identifies with Génessier's desire: the Woman-Made-Beautiful.
The film's ethics centre on showing Christiane as well as Louise to each be complicit in the terror Génessier pursues. Christiane secretly overlooks her father and Louise's kidnapping and drugging of Edna, a new victim for her beauty. While the young woman lies helplessly strapped to an operating table, Christiane enters and approaches her; then, distracted by the sound of dogs, she leaves by a side door and we see her fondly caressing several in their adjacent quarters. She returns to the operating room, stopping at a mirror where, removing her mask, she inspects her face, before approaching the drugged girl whom we are now shown through Christiane's optical pov.
As she passes her hands across Edna's face, Christiane (we may infer) is imagining what it might look and feel like on herself. At this the girl is momentarily roused and we are now given her PoV of the unmasked Christiane, appearing as just a shadowy patch of black with a band of light across the eyes. The film cuts to the girl's face as she screams and faints, then cuts back to the previous shot of Christiane (but it is no longer an optical pov), who retreats further into shadow as we hear the sound of dogs barking.
The film doubles Génessier and his daughter; both wish for her beauty to be regained. Tellingly, however, it also distinguishes them through their different relation to the animals. For Christiane, the dogs (who later tear her father to pieces) are her friends, and their response to her is one of pleasure. This is in sharp contrast with the later shots of her father who, after completing the operation, also passes through, but now provoking violent barks and howls from the angry and fearful animals, whom he prods with his stick. Christiane, like the animals, is merely a means to Génessier's will to power and surgical success, but, and unlike the animals, this is only insofar as Christiane finds her being in her desire for his desire, her beauty.
This second operation is revealed as a failure just as its very success is being heralded. As they gather over dinner, Louise comments that Christiane appears "more beautiful than ever," but when her father, kissing her before he leaves to go out, inspects her face approvingly he suddenly observes what we later understand to be the almost-imperceptible first faint marks of the rejection of the graft. A series of still photographs follow which document the advancing necrosis of the dying transplanted tissue, and Christiane "loses" her face again. It is now that Christiane once again phones Jacques, this time whispering his name. Courting his recognition, she also thereby courts the exposure this might bring, marking a shift in Christiane, a shift also signalled by a change in her dress from the stiff silk taffeta house-coat of earlier scenes to the much softer material which drapes her here.
For their third attempt, Génessier and Louise abduct a young woman patient as she leaves his clinic, in the grounds of which he has his home and research laboratories. The girl has been planted by the police following Jacques' information but she contrives to be released early, and her imminent defacing is prevented not by the representatives of the law, whom she has evaded, but by Christiane. Already prepared for operating, the girl awakes and begins screaming, shaking her head from side to side. She is observed by Christiane, who also (but without the same violence) shakes her head, then goes up to the girl and, grasping a scalpel while the girl screams in terror, cuts the tapes restraining her.
The dogs start barking and Christiane, whom we may infer expects to be discovered, repositions the scalpel in her hand as a dagger when Louise enters and calls on her to stop. Instead Christiane stabs her, piercing her throat at the place of the tiny scar which is the only remaining sign of her former mutilation. Passing from the operating room, Christiane releases the caged animals in the adjacent laboratories, then departing into the wooded grounds outside. At this point her father returns from speaking with the policemen. Hearing the dogs, Génessier opens the garden entrance to their quarters and they leap out, attacking him and destroying his face. The film closes with Christiane's departure from the house surrounded by white doves, echoing the portrait of her unscarred visage seen earlier but now with her face concealed by her mask.
Two types of horrors
The story is ethically resolved by Christiane's action in choosing to set free the girl, which is figured by Franju's closing images as also a freedom for herself. But her ethical choice is not only—and perhaps not even primarily—her action to prevent another girl's defacement. Rather, it is to finally turn away from the fascination with the beautiful constituted for her by her father's desire, and accept a self, even a mutilated one, which is her own.
There are two horrors in the film, therefore. One, quite straightforwardly, is the gruesomeness of the faceless face, made literally visible in the scene of the skin which is shown being lifted away from Edna's drugged form. This is straightforward insofar as it draws for its effect on our identification with Edna. The dismemberment of the self represented by the face is made viscerally palpable here in the dispossessing of what should be inalienable. It is a matter quite literally of "your face or mine," which is either good black humour or a shocking apprehension in a terrifying encounter with the real such as to produce, perhaps, the sudden fainting reported amongst some contemporary audience members.
Here arises the second horror, that what the Other of my desire desires of me is this dismemberment of myself in support of the Other's desire. For while Christina's desire doubles that of her father—since each desires a new face for her—nevertheless Génessier desires the separable face for his daughter, such that it is the object for him. Christiane, in thus desiring the desire of her father, is also doubled with Edna, who becomes "unfaced" by Génessier just as Christiane has been.
What is involved is not, therefore, desire, but an enjoyment by the Other—jouissance. The cost of such an enjoyment is my pound of flesh. Edna also serves the desire of Christiane, not only of her father. And in another form of doubling, both women function as support to Génessier's enjoyment, suggested in the repetition of Christiane's movement through the house to observe her kidnapping, now followed in reverse by Edna as she flees, falling to her death which, her scream notwithstanding, may be suicide. For Christiane, however, there is escape and freedom, although perhaps also madness, while it is her father who dies.
It had been Christiane's mask that subsequently seemed the focus of my disturbance in this film, a connection further motivated by the similar role of a mask and a face destroyed in Kaneto Shindô's Onibaba (Japan, 1964), which I saw a few weeks later, with equal horror. No subsequent reflection, even after my intellectual encounter with psychoanalysis, resolved the enigma of my horror. But I have noticed that my sense of horror was also very much like my horror in Voltaire's Candide and its story of the girl who must pay for survival with the flesh of her buttock.
The horrible mask as the thing of horror has been a kind of fetish standing in for a traumatic real but whose role for me remained unconscious. My squeamish horror was not an ethical response but a traumatic encounter. If my remembered horror remains uncanny for me, but not traumatic, this is notwithstanding my analysis here of Les Yeux sans visage, which could only offer me the satisfaction of a mastering I must continuously re-make.
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