Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 13 
9 Sept
2002

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Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959)HORROR
Dr Franju's "House of Pain" and the political cutting edge of horror
Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans visage
(Eyes Without a Face, 1959)

Drawing valuable connections between Les Yeux sans visage and the work of Fritz Lang, Victor Halperin and Luis Buñuel, Reynold Humphries sheds new light on the political implications and "symbolic messages" of Franju's French horror classic.


In her admirable study of Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, France, 1959), Joan Hawkins refers to the "House of Pain" of Professor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) and draws attention to the origin of the formula: the laboratory of Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton) in Erle C Kenton's Island of Lost Souls (1932).[1] I would like to raise here a number of questions pertaining both to the experiments conducted by the two "mad scientists," Génessier and Moreau, and to the locations of their activities: a distant Paris suburb for the former, a remote island for the latter. My purpose here is to foreground the political implications of such an apparently banal geographical detail in the Franju.

Génessier's first appearance is during a public lecture he is giving on skin transplants, the transfer of tissue from one person to another. He insists on the importance of "perfect biological identity" between donor and recipient to ensure success, adding that changing an individual biologically requires "intense radiation." On the explicit level of the script and dialogue we find ourselves unmistakably in the world of fantasy. Franju's use of the camera, however, places us squarely in the contemporary "real" world. Thus the opening shot of the sequence is not one of Génessier but of the audience where we can see a priest sitting in the front row and, behind him and to the left, a young black man. Further shots isolate members of the audience, in particular society ladies, young and elderly, wearing expensive fur coats. As the Professor pronounces the formula "perfect biological identity," Franju returns to the audience, his camera panning slowly to the right so as to place in the middle of the frame both the black man and the priest. Let us take things from there.

The heritage of Fritz Lang

The film opens with shots of trees taken from a car on a road at night, accompanied by the film's credits. I would argue that the combination of the trees, rapid movement and the name of the director of photography, Eugen Shuftan, adds up to far more than the simple sum of its parts. Franju is referring back to the German period of Fritz Lang, most notably to the films devoted to Dr Mabuse (the film in two parts of 1922 and the film of 1932). Scenes of cars speeding through forests figure in both films, and one of the final sequences in The Last Will of Dr Mabuse (1932) shows the mad doctor driving crazily through the night, visibly controlled by the mind of the late Mabuse. That Génessier's faithful companion Louise (Alida Valli) should be so madly in love with him that she submits to his will without hesitation is not just a coincidence; getting people to obey his wishes was part of Mabuse's overall strategy and Génessier is very much concerned with the power his social and scientific status gives him. Nor, of course, can it be reduced to a question of influence. The matter is far more complex.

Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959) Hawkins has pinpointed, among other historical references in Les Yeux sans visage, experiments on human guinea-pigs in Nazi concentration camps and the ongoing war in Algeria, with its abductions, torture and murders. It is also fascinating to notice how many horror movies of the 1930s take place on inaccessible islands or in houses located on remote cliff tops: apart from Island of Lost Souls, the year 1932 also gave us White Zombie and The Most Dangerous Game, two clearly political films. The former represents colonial repression in an explicitly class context (the working-class zombies who labour without pay), while the latter is patently anti-fascist, with Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) standing in for Mussolini. (Incidentally, the parallel between Zaroff getting finished off by his dogs and Génessier having his face chewed off by his is too close to be coincidental. The 1958 British horror film Blood of the Vampire also has its mad doctor torn to pieces by guard dogs.)

Thus, while the films of the 30s are inscribed into the space of Hollywood ideology with its eschewal of history—nothing like a remote island to suggest life cut off from the everyday!-they simultaneously foreground (via Zaroff's aristocratic origins and fascist ideology, for example) precisely that history Hollywood wants to hide. Franju is both more explicit and more subtle than this.

Franju, Buñuel and politics

Les Yeux sans visage's juxtaposition within a single spatial location of a priest, a black man and wealthy society ladies indicates both the objective collaboration between the Church and the ruling class at the expense of the supposedly inferior (we shall return to the question of class presently) and, more subtly even, ideology's role in the forging of what Fredric Jameson has called "the political unconscious."[2] That a black person can listen attentively to talk of scientific experiments demanding "perfect biological identity" cannot but make us stop and think: clearly the man's middle-class origins have blinded him to the reality of history, and very recent history at that. He thus becomes an unwitting, but useful, collaborator in political repression, of the precise kind being practised at the time in Algeria and in the Congo (a supreme irony of history: the abduction, disappearance and eventual death by torture of the exiled Moroccan opposition leader Ben Barka in Paris in 1965 while on his way to discuss a film project with none other than Georges Franju!).

Nor must we forget the role of collaboration during the Occupation and the years leading up to it. Here one finds a close link between the cinema of Franju and that of Buñuel, particularly the latter's Journal d'une Femme de Chambre (The Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964)—made just four years after Les Yeux sans visage—where race, class, sex and repression in all its forms converge in what is perhaps their most satisfying aesthetic and political expression in French cinema.

Class, as I mentioned, is a crucial component of White Zombie. It is also paramount in The Most Dangerous Game, where the guests on board ship resemble more the members of the Board of Directors of a business enterprise than big-game hunters or simple guests. And it is surely central to Island of Lost Souls, albeit in the displaced form of animals-creatures no more able to defend themselves than the zombies at the disposal of Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) in White Zombie, all of them so many goods and chattels destined to enhance the literal and metaphorical surplus value demanded by their insatiable superiors.

In Les Yeux sans visage this class element is uppermost and sufficiently explicit to have been responsible, I would suggest, for the hysterical outcry that greeted the film and which Hawkins has nicely documented. Burly and bearded, Brasseur's Génessier even bears a physical resemblance to Laughton's Moreau, but it is primarily his matter-of-fact behaviour that makes his desire to play God so chilling.

A matter of class

Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959) Class is manifest in two forms in Franju's film: both are linked to Génessier, one through his own status as a member of the bourgeoisie, the other through his experiments. One cannot help but be struck by a factor that is constantly present in big cities around the world: the lack of accommodation for those without financial resources, here the students abducted by Louise to bring grist to the good doctor's grisly mill in the form of facial tissue.

Even more poignant, however, is the father whose daughter has disappeared. We realise at once that she is the victim whose corpse has been unceremoniously dumped in the river in the opening sequence. Génessier's attitude comes over as truly and monstrously sadistic: anxious to pass the faceless body off as that of his daughter so as to be able to butcher in peace (and let us not forget Franju's sublime tribute to other butchers, Le Sang des BŸtes [Blood of the Beasts, 1949]...), he "consoles" the pathetic and disconsolate father, "You at least have some hope left," knowing full well that there is none.

Thus, this wretched man-who, as someone of humble origins (like the students), does not have access to the authorities as the much-admired doctor does-can only stumble off into the night, sobbing and clutching his hat, a victim without knowing it. As such he cuts a very different figure from that of the black man, an unconscious yet willing accomplice to repression of all sorts, including his own. The horror of the situation is that the father will never know, condemned for reasons of class and power to spend the remainder of his life in a state of anguish, like so many families of the victims of concentration camps, gulags and South American death squads. Génessier's lecture may take place in the heart of Paris—a select drawing—room in the capital's posh XVIth district—but the world he represents and before whose members he performs is as remote as his huge suburban mansion and, ultimately, the island of Dr Moreau.

At the same time it is this very physical remoteness from the lives of everyday people-significantly, Génessier's operating theatre is a hidden room to which he has access by a sliding door in the best tradition of the horror genre—that enables the doctor and his ilk to work away quietly to their own financial and political advantage. Nor should we assume ourselves above such horrors, the product of totalitarian regimes and decadent Europeans: Génessier talks of "radiation" and the photos of his daughter after yet another skin graft fails resemble nothing if not those of victims of Hiroshima.

Like Psycho and Peeping Tom—which appeared in the same vintage year, 1960—Les Yeux sans visage sends out symbolic messages the repercussions of which on spectators are seemingly endless. Its sole "special effect," the lifting of the skin from a victim's face, packs the biggest punch since the slicing of the eye in Buñuel's Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1928). At a time when blood-letting is graphic and gratuitous, let us not forget where true artistry and poetry lie. Unless we want to let history pass us by, yet again.

Reynold Humphries

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About the author

Reynold Humphries is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Lille, France. He is the author of Fritz Lang: Genre and Representation in his American Films (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988) and The American Horror Film: An Introduction (Edinburgh University Press, 2002), as well as articles on Dracula's Daughter, David Cronenberg and Michael Powell. He is currently preparing an essay on contemporary Hollywood and a study of the aesthetics and politics of films made by victims of the blacklist.

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Footnotes

1. Joan Hawkins, Cutting Edge. Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). The chapter on Les Yeux sans visage is on pp 65-85.return to text

2. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Methuen, 1981).return to text

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