“Eyes Without a Face”: A Near-Perfect Textbook Exercise in Body Horror

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This review spoils the beginning of the film, but not the end. Granted, this film is best viewed with zero foreknowledge. Go watch it, then come back and read this. Thank me later.

A severe-faced blonde drives through the night, flanked by trees and stonewalls, wary of any traffic joining her on the road. Why so wary? we ask. Then, we see: a figure in fedora and topcoat is in the backseat, head lolling forwards—a corpse disguised as a sleeping passenger, the crime concealed cleverly but not inasmuch as to avoid suspense, a faint possibility of capture. No time for a better idea: the body’s decay calls for haste. The blonde dumps it in a river. A respected surgeon, Dr. Génessier, is giving a lecture on the potential and risks of facial reconstruction when he receives a distressing call. That call leads him to a morgue, where he sees the dead body and identifies it as his daughter, Christiane—which he does in spite of the fact that the face has been cleanly carved off. Tessot, another bereft father of a missing girl, wonders aloud to Dr. Génessier whether he should take a look at the corpse and assure it is not his daughter. The doctor insists that there is still hope for that girl—the dismissal comes off as awkward. At the funeral, the blonde stands in a line with the doctor, and shakes hands as he does with mourners offering condolences. The plot thickens; the culprit is on the inside. Yet, the circumstances are even more sinister than that. After the funeral, Dr. Génessier and the blonde—his assistant, Louise—head to his house, where a young lady lies in bed, hiding her face—or at least what’s left of it. It’s Christiane. She’s very much alive, but far from well. Her face has been disfigured in an accident for which her dad is responsible, and the doctor is trying to make up for it by commissioning Louise to lure girls who resemble Christiane to his palatial estate, where he knocks them out with chloroform, slices off their faces, and attempts to graft them onto Christiane’s face. Results so far have been dire. Tessot’s daughter was one such girl. She died mid-surgery, and it was her body that Louise dumped in the river. Tessot’s fatalist instincts were right, and Dr. Génessier cruelly lied to him, giving him false hope to cover up his crime. This doctor is deranged.

The opening scenes of Eyes Without a Face—a classic of French horror, and the most famous film of Georges Franju—demonstrate a mastery of narrative economy invaluable to students of cinema. Every scene, every take, presents something new that alters and clarifies all that came before. Every detail is essential, nothing is embellished, all the Chekhov’s guns pay off, yet there is enough theme and symbolism to add variety, make the proceedings plausible, and avoid coming off as generic and schematic. To be sure, the disturbing revelations are foreshadowed—mainly through Génessier’s lecture, and postmortem commentary on Tessot’s daughter. Even if you do see what’s coming, though, the confirmation of it is palpable. This is the value of the horror genre: not sadomasochistic jump scares, but the fulfillment of a grave fear, and the catharsis that arrives with looking it in the eye (face?) and confronting it head-on. After the flawless first act, the writers—Franju, novelists Jean Redon and Boileau-Narcejac, and Claude Sautet—show us what they can wax with the opposite: a predictable scenario, in which the horror emerges not from the nasty surprises but from the mounting dread of preordained doom. We see Louise go to Paris and appeal to a Swiss girl, Edna, looking for a place to stay. She has Christiane’s blue eyes. She may as well be Tessot’s girl all over again, just another selfsame rung on the doctor’s downward spiral. This is Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. These damsels have no significance to Génessier other than that they are doppelgängers of Christiane, of whom he is deeply envious. Edna’s end is written—and after Christiane’s attempt to rescue her backfires (in a way you have to see—and feel—for yourself), all we can do is watch, and understand why, as she lies unconscious and powerless while her face is peeled from the rest of her body. There is no fighting back kicking and screaming and losing with dignity, only a chilling indulgence in defeat.

A traditionally structured film made and premiered when the New Wave was greasing its wheels, Eyes Without a Face stuck to the tropes of gothic horror while innovating within them. This is the earliest film I know of to create horror out of a group of bumbling, well-meaning good guys playing right into the villain’s hand. The ironic confusion the writers create between the murderer’s victim and the murderer’s daughter in the first act is a stroke of genius, prepping the audience for the film’s theme of physical collusion, and the counterpoint that Tessot’s presence provides is icing. The police’s incompetence plays into Génessier’s hand one more time, towards the film’s end, and though the impact of that second helping is blunted, the suspense is far from totally diminished. The body horror was also groundbreaking for its day, and the psychological factor makes it even queasier. Génessier is not a quack. He reconstructed Louise’s face successfully, for which she rewards him with loyalty and trust. He can perform a skin graft. But can he make lightning strike twice? Apparently not. He has ruined Christiane’s face, and in trying to rectify it, he ruins other faces and other lives and digs deeper into his moral grave. (One scene late in the film indicates, with appropriate irony, that Génessier has more medical talent on the subject of eyes than on skin.) What exactly is his plan with the girls whose faces he robs? This isn’t made clear. He decorates their heads with gauze (last year’s Austrian horror workout Goodnight Mommy goes out of its way to reference this), imprisons them in a cellar, and…that’s it. Does he expect them to be pushovers, to be open to something in return for their visages? Maybe he hopes he’ll find a cadaver resembling Christiane and then be able to give Edna—and Tessot’s girl before her—a facial transplant. But shouldn’t that have been his original plan for Christiane? Wouldn’t the cadaver’s skin already be decaying? No matter. To Génessier, these girls’ lives are expendable for their faces, and beauty is a zero-sum game. The film’s most horrifying theme is that the body is indispensable to our identity; many have been disfigured enough that they have euthanized themselves. Génessier’s devotion to body over soul makes a mockery of the Hippocratic oath.

Fitting to its title, Eyes Without a Face views superficially disgusting events with clear, even perspective—like wizened gothic pupils gazing onto new storytelling frontiers that grow more insidious and challenging with each innovation. Pierre Brasseur brings a contemporary clinical take to Dr. Génessier, smearing his delusions with stentorian professionalism, and underhandedly reminding the audience that the strongest of intellects is always vulnerable to ethical corruption. Alida Valli, as Louise, is what you’d expect from a dark, serious titan among Italian actors; between this and The Third Man, she has grown on me since I cringed at her awful late-career misstep as an über-camp dance school administrator in the overrated Suspiria. Rounding out the lead trio is Edith Scob in the role of a lifetime as Christiane. Performing all but a few minutes behind a porcelain white mask with nose, lips and eyeholes, robbed of facial expression, she is tasked with creating a character and evoking her through movement and voice alone—not a role fit for an acting novice. You try doing it and pulling it off as well as Scob does. Avoiding overt despair in favor of grace, Scob charts Christiane’s progression from weakness to rebellion with perfect fluidity, and her ultimate acceptance of her disfigurement is conveyed with a brutal karmic vendetta and a stunning closing shot. It is not easy to make acceptance of a tragedy a satisfying resolution—much less so in this genre—but this film succeeds at it with aplomb. It’s her body; it’s her choice. This tale could’ve been set centuries before, so when the camera strays onto a passing airplane or a Picasso poster in a chic bachelor pad, the realization that this is the ‘60s is startling—but in hindsight, this really is a modernist film, a keen warning on the burdens of expanding medical technology with a dash of feminism. The only glaring flaw is the mismatched carnivalesque frill of the young Maurice Jarre’s musical score. This is a bracing cinematic textbook, and I am glad that I was able to overcome my distaste for horror enough to see it.

Grade: A

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“Eyes Without a Face”: A Near-Perfect Textbook Exercise in Body Horror

An Open Letter to Andrew Wakefield, the Man Behind the Autism-Vaccine Controversy

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Dear Mr. Wakefield:

It is well established that you are a quack and a liar. I believe you are even worse than that.

It should not take much scientific thought for a layman to be doubtful (to say the least) of your claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism. That claim operates under the implication that it is a lesser evil to risk having a child come down with a potentially fatal disease than to have a child on the autism spectrum. As someone with Asperger syndrome, I consider that predication diabolical to the point of inducing vomit. It perpetuates the highly insulting idea of autism as an incurable disease—an irrevocable catastrophe that we can only respond to with forfeiture once a child is diagnosed with it, and that we should aim to eradicate, in part by eradicating the MMR vaccine. It is thus that you are not just a quack and a liar. You are also a eugenicist and a bigot.

Autism alone is not a catastrophe. How we are treating autism is a catastrophe.

I’ve seen it all. I’ve had classmates and peers call me stupid, retard, weird, oblivious, sperg-burger, to my face. I’ve had people who I thought were friends deliberately disrespect me, in ways that well-meaning teachers interpreted as “nonverbal cues” that indicated it was I and not them who ought to adjust behavior. I’ve been to summer camps that were not much more elaborate than storage facilities, where kids were kept on insane drug regimens (breakfast, lunch and dinner) that not only didn’t work but seemed to make their behavioral and social problems even worse; where invasive and abusive methods of physical restraining were viewed as appropriate punishment; and where one counselor—a total jock—responded to my legitimate charges of undernourishment by diagnosing me with a “sugar addiction” and spending the rest of the summer making fun of me over it, to my face. I’ve seen the stereotypes propagated by the media—the magical savant, the helpless target of bullies, the nerd who doesn’t know how to act around women, the violent psychopath who vents his anger by gunning down first-graders in Connecticut. I’ve read literature depicting autism as a disorder that impedes one’s understanding of who people are and how they think and act—so even if I am being bullied and neglected, then why should my perspective have any validity? Why should even I trust my own perspective?

Autism is not a disability or a disease that we should aim to “cure”. That notion is offensive and disgusting. (You think I’m wrong? The scientific consensus once thought the same of homosexuality—look how that turned out.) Autism is a unique state of being that needs to be channeled towards yielding accomplishments that are productive to and influential in society. Several biographers propose that if W.A. Mozart, Isaac Newton, Henry Cavendish, Emily Dickinson, Stanley Kubrick, W.B. Yeats, Herman Melville, Patricia Highsmith, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Nikola Tesla (and more) were around today, they’d have a case to visit a neurologist. I have heard of valuable research into how therapies involving music, writing and other aesthetic pursuits can assist persons with autism in focusing their hyperkinetic minds, and in communicating articulately and freely with others. And yet, our educational system at large is suppressing and pathologizing the unique and positive qualities of autism, mainly as part and parcel of its large-scale and disastrous efforts to suppress creativity in favor of an industrial regime that enforces memorization and test-taking above all else, and that streamlines kids into unskilled labor and—in the case of minorities—into the U.S.’ disgraceful prison complex.

Some of the most common misconceptions about Aspergerians, it bears repeating, are that we can’t read tacit social cues and that we struggle to show empathy. Let me speak for myself: my emotional intelligence is very strong, and I empathize with as many people in difficult situations as I can. What makes me different is that I am not always sure how to respond to social occurrences and advances that I don’t anticipate. This is because I have a distinctly firm, intense, serious way of carrying myself, and it’s hard to shake me out of it and get me to react to things in a way that’s socially expected but also kind of dishonest and contrived. This, I am willing to attribute to my neurology, and I can understand why some may interpret such tendencies as a sign of emotional blindness and being slow on the uptake. All the more why the misconceptions demand correction. Once I figured this all out, I was glad to be able to stop treating my peers’ social interactions as a foreign language that I had to learn and translate. It seemed like that was the case; of course it’s not. If anything, social interactions have a more palpable and more complex aura to them when they occur among peer groups who are bonded by specific shared memories. This, I’m okay with, as long as those groups permit social mobility and don’t act exclusive and stuck-up about themselves. Aleida Assmann wrote of sociologist Maurice Halbwachs’ concept of collective memory: “[M]emories are intrinsically social and constitute a group’s communicative and emotional glue. […] [P]eople do not develop an individual memory at all but are always included in memory communities. […] [A] person who is completely alone cannot develop a memory at all.” Aspies are more reserved than average, and this is our right, yet this thought has given me impetus to become more involved in social groups, and has made me wonder what influence my ideas risk losing when I develop them in solitude.

Alas. Western society seems less appreciative of intellect and integrity than it is of social sophistication and charisma. One need look no further than our current political media landscape, where genuine ideas to develop economic opportunity and fix pervasive social issues mean nothing if you can’t describe and enact them quickly and smoothly, while bigoted trolls with nothing useful to offer the country routinely catapult themselves to high office with catchy soundbytes and manipulative spectacle. “Inertia over innovation” is how I’ve read one describe it. This is a system built and designed to break Aspergerians. In both its definition and its French-Latin etymology, the word retard—which ought to go the way of the N-word, a term of Black enslavement when used by whites—carries connotations of slowness and delay. In the consumerist age of the Internet, speed, impatience, narcissism, attention-seizing and superficial pleasure are what’s in vogue. The grand irony of this in my childhood was that while schools purported to prioritize education above all else, its efforts to socialize students like me involved an attempt to wheedle us into conforming to the overall social standards and expectations of our peers as a primary means of overcoming our autistic insularity. This is invariably a recipe for disaster. The tribalism infecting most U.S. public schools—with its emphasis on competitive sports and physical prowess, its preference for snark over candor, and its willingness to ostracize, not to mention the ubiquitous place of drugs within it—is a direct byproduct of the Western culture of inertia, and a damaging environment for the clumsy, methodical, academically passionate, down-to-earth, law-abiding Aspie student such as I was.

“Hold on!” you might say. “Do you mean to conflate Asperger’s with classical autism? Because classical autism is the catastrophe! And that’s what the vaccine is causing!” That is not an excuse. A few years ago, the APA made the somewhat controversial decision to scrap the label of “Asperger’s” from the DSM-V and subsume it into the umbrella diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder”. At the time, the decision pissed me off because I feared that as a result, Aspies would receive the same “treatment” as those with more severe autism. (That, and to be frank, I kind of got a kick off having a condition with a German name.) I now understand that overall, the APA did the right thing, and that what they may have actually, effectively been implying was the converse: that therapies used to treat Asperger’s needed to be extended further down the autism spectrum, in the hopes that classical autists can be unlocked, develop faster, and show what intellect they may contribute to society. I have a confident hunch that this is possible, thus it is essential. If Aspies can break out of their shell, then so can low-functioning autists, whom I consider my neurological brethren, and with whom I am united in solidarity against you. Classical autism does present a greater challenge than Asperger’s, but it is not a sign of doom, and it is unacceptable to perceive it as such, call for its eradication, and give up on those born with classical autism as hopeless cases. The easy thing to do and the right thing to do are hardly ever the same thing; often, they are opposites. Dismissing a challenge because one finds it insurmountable is the mark of a truly pathetic man.

And that is what you are, Mr. Wakefield—pathetic. Enough has been written about your fabrications and financial motives, your disregard for the most obvious fundaments of scientific procedure, and your mockery of the Hippocratic Oath; I don’t need to remind you of that. I do find it telling, though, that in your experiments, you have violently restrained and performed unwarranted colonoscopies on autistic children. That right there is really all anyone needs to know about your character. Autism to you is the perfect bait, a convenient means to an end, an easy tool to exploit for profit, a disease that you can thoughtlessly lump in with colitis or whatnot to promote the medieval anti-vaccine hysteria that you wouldn’t live a day without. I’m not writing to disprove or discredit you blow-by-blow; that’s already been done. I’m writing to tell you about how you stand to profit less from science than from culture—a culture, namely, of the phobia of autism—and fear is as elemental to bigotry as hate. And while I’ve tried to skirt around the notion of you perpetuating an attitude that a sick or dead child is better than an autistic child, some of your supporters have spoken to that effect. Jenny McCarthy has said as much. How can these people be so wanton and so cavalier with their kids’ health? Do they take for granted that their child might die? Or would they rather their child be vapid and socially popular than gifted and socially awkward? Autism can be meaningful to society. I think I have much to offer society because of autism. And yet, some people would dare to convince me otherwise because they won’t listen to anything that threatens, as opposed to confirms, their ossified belief that autism is purely a horror story.

I will never watch your documentary Vaxxed. I refuse. I’m not even remotely interested in it. I am boycotting it in perpetuity, as should every other filmgoer, and I am considering boycotting all theaters showing it, including the usually reliable Angelika Film Center in New York City. (What the hell are they thinking?! What the hell was Robert De Niro thinking bringing this to Tribeca?!) You will not get a penny for it from me. My guess is that it’s as odious a piece of eugenicist propaganda as Triumph of the Will, and humanity would do better without it. Justly and rightly revoked of your medical license, you are now hijacking the power of cinema to continue your demonization of autism and to thus make a profit, which is all you give a damn about. How dare you. The subtitle of your film is From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. Curious. You say that the catastrophe is the increase of autism rates worldwide, yet you have nothing to say about the real catastrophe, which is that over nine thousand children are dead because of the outbreak of measles, mumps and rubella caused by your fear-mongering bullshit, and you are intellectually incapable of offering any alternative to the MMR vaccine to remedy the insane tumult that you have caused. I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about those deaths. I dare you to address them and take full responsibility for them. You probably won’t because you’re a psychopath and I take it you’ve fallen for your own lies as a defense mechanism, but I dare you nonetheless.

I don’t allow myself to be defined entirely by Asperger’s, and I’ve hardly ever used it as an excuse for anything. At the same time, it is an important part of my identity, and I am proud of it. I believe that autism should be respected and celebrated, and that neurodiversity is an essential good. It’ll take some work to push for it—given the autistic proclivity for solitude and the need to form large groups to create an effective movement for sociopolitical change—but it’s doable, and it’ll be done. It has to be done, with the stakes this high. I believe that autism is mostly genetic. It may have some environmental causes, but the basis of it is hereditary. Audre Lorde has an excellent essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, in which she, to quote Sarah Schulman, “takes us through the process of realizing, when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, that—had she been silent about her truths: about her homosexuality, her racial position, her experiences as a poet and as a mother—she still would have had cancer. That her silence would not have protected her. This is the strongest argument I have ever seen for telling the truth about experience, understanding and social perception.” Likewise, not getting your children vaccinated will not “protect” them from autism—and I feel sorry for the parents who are so afraid of autism, they feel like they have to risk their child’s death—which no parent wants—to “protect” him or her from something that protection-from is unnecessary and perhaps even counterproductive because autism is good. Without Asperger’s, I wouldn’t be the Haverford graduate and the intellectual, driven bookworm and film buff that I am today. And I wouldn’t give that up for anything.

If I have children, and if they have autism—whether classical or Asperger’s—I will love and accept them, and I will know how to raise them. And I will get them vaccinated. And you, Mr. Wakefield, can go fuck yourself.

An Open Letter to Andrew Wakefield, the Man Behind the Autism-Vaccine Controversy