There is a pun here somewhere: I can’t seem to figure out how to wrap my mind around the movie “Eyes Without a Face.” A classic 1960 horror-genre French film by George Franju, Les Yeux sans Visage, is a brilliant surgeon’s quest to find a replacement face for his daughter’s, disfigured beyond recognition in an accident. It’s no slasher thriller--but still I found myself averting
mes yeux when the doctor took le crayon and drew the outlines on the victims’ faces that he was shortly to cut off.
Like all good scary movies, it’s a squirm-worthy. But more than that, “Eyes Without a Face” is political commentary. It’s reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s character in “Berenice” who, for reasons unclear, exhumes his lover’s body in order to extract and save her teeth. And it also calls to mind two short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne—“Dr. Rappacini’s Daughter,” and “The Birthmark.” In both Hawthorne stories, a father and husband respectively, in their efforts to perfect the lives of the women over which they exert control, cause their deaths.
These are male artists making art about women oppressed by power-wielding men. To me it suggests a level of reflection on male power that opens the way for dialogue across the divide that perpetuates patriarchy. (The irony, of course, is that the artist is the ultimate power-wielder: Georges Franju, sympathizes with the disempowerment of women, but also portrays the daughter in the film as a wispy, weak-willed victim in beribboned nightdresses that engulf her mignonette frame.)
Still, he makes his point. There is no political scolding or preaching in “Eyes Without a Face.” Indeed, the main character who goes trolling for the blonde-haired, blue-eyed women the doctor needs has, herself, been “saved” by the doctor’s arts. She doesn’t want to procure these young women, but she—literally—has skin in the game. She owes her beauty, and perhaps even her life, to the doctor. So she is in his power.
It strikes me as an auspicious time to have seen “Eyes Without a Face.” Last week, after the passage of the dubiously named American Health Care Act, healthcare service providers were quick to point out that this replacement of the Affordable Care Act would, among other things, restrict or ban funding for contraception and abortion coverage, pregnancy-related care, Medicaid and Planned Parenthood. The overall rate of uninsured women, which had fallen from 17% in 2013 to 11% in 2015, will no doubt rise again.
In March, when President Trump met with the far-right congressional Freedom Caucus to discuss stripping requirements for insurance companies to cover maternity, newborn and pregnancy care, the tweeted photo of that meeting showed a group of two dozen men sitting around a table, not a woman in sight.
Jill Filipovic, writing in The New York Times said, “This isn’t the first celebratory photo the White House has released of men cutting health care for women…Mr. Trump promised he would make America great again, a slogan that included the implicit pledge to return white men to their place of historic supremacy….If women can’t decide for themselves when and if to have children and are instead at the mercy of men and nature, there will simply never be 50 percent of us at that table, or in any halls of power.”
In the hands of Poe and Hawthorne and the director Georges Franju, we see artistic representations of over-weaning male will-to-power as it affects women’s choices. If the news isn’t already enough of a horror show, let’s look to art—and to some horror stories that can provide us timely commentary on our contemporary lives.