14. Veil, Visor, Disguiser: Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage

The following is extracted from The Possessions of Doctor Forrest, as police detective Hagen questions Forrest’s friend Dr Grey Lochran about a curious mask of black leather that has been found in the search of the missing Forrest’s apartment:

I sighed. ‘That is – an invention of Robert’s? A piece of product design he took to market. None too successfully, alas.’
‘What’s the gist of it then?’
‘They call it cold therapy. A cold-compress mask, for patients recovering from a procedure on the face – face lift, eye lift.’
Hagen had stood and plucked the mask off the table; now he was fumbling to separate and sort the varied flaps of PVC. Finally he raised it to his face and stood there, mutely black-visaged, for so many silent beats that I was made a touch queasy by the off-key jocularity. At length I realised he was studying his reflection in a mirror behind me. Finally he lowered the mask, bemused.
‘Produces something of a sinister aspect, doesn’t it?’
‘Quite. A touch of the fetish. I’d guess that’s partly why the trade failed to embrace it. I told Robert it’d look better on Halloween night than in a recovery suite. But that only tickled him. He wouldn’t be told. Not on matters of taste…’

This mask, you will already have guessed, makes further unnerving appearances as the story progresses.
I am an unabashed admirer of masks, at least when it comes to the business of storytelling and drama. Behind the mask, for actor as for character, one is truly free to be somebody other than oneself. Of course there’s also the theory in sociology, pertinent to fiction, that social life itself is but a stage on which all of us, at times, wear our faces as masks… But above all there are umpteen great stories deriving from the mystery of face-masks that offer a frozen vision of beauty, only to conceal a grisly truth on the part of the wearer. Masks – like clowns – are sometimes funny, and mainly creepy. But they can offer considerable poignancy too.
‘My face frightens me; my mask terrifies me even more…’ So laments Christiane Génessier (Edith Scob) in what is perhaps the finest of all mask stories, the grisly and yet lyrical 1959 French film Les Yeux Sans Visage / Eyes Without A Face directed by Georges Franju. The evil fate of the Phantom of the Opera may inspire pity, but how can it compare with that of Christiane, a mere slip of a girl, awfully disfigured by her own father, somehow retaining her innocence while confined to a chateau that crawls with quiet lunacy? Christiane’s obsessive doctor-daddy (Pierre Brasseur), cause of the car crash that left her face ‘an open wound’, tasks his nurse (Alida Valli) to kidnap collegiate females as grist for radical face transplants that never quite ‘take’. (At dinner after one such doomed effort Génessier bids his daughter smile, but ‘pas trop.’) Scob is a forlorn doll as she wanders the chateau’s corridors in her white mask and raincoat with high collar and short sleeves. Denied human intimacy, she has an eerie communion with the ravening Great Danes her father keeps in the basement; they, finally, will be the agents of her revenge.
Georges Franju was a fascinating character: he co-founded the Cinémathèque Française and directed the grim slaughterhouse documentary Le Sang des Bêtes (1949), but had a love of fantasy (see also Judex, 1963) that achieved its full dark bloom in the form of Christiane’s waxen mask. Below is a clip from Judex, quite the best passage in the movie, which unfolds – surprise, surprise – at a masked ball. Below that is the marvellous finale of Les Yeux Sans Visage.


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