A father's omnipotence is challenged by a defiant daughter, her vacuous visage an effigy of his failure, two identities defined and transfigured by a murderous obsession: hers hidden behind a masquerade of plastic beauty, his eclipsed by a surgical mask. Director Georges Franju confounds genre expectations as this classic horror bromide wonderfully mutates into an Expressionist melodrama, ripe with patriarchal abuse and feminine fatale.
The opening scene is wickedly mysterious as a car races through the thick night, trees like skeletal hands silhouetted against the sky, and a shadowy figure slumped in the back seat. Maurice Jarre’s skewed carnival music overlaps the onrushing images painting a frightening emotional texture upon the narrative. A handsome woman grips the steering wheel with determination, glancing quickly towards her “sleeping” passenger. From a low angle, we see her stop the car and pull the figure from the back-seat...and throw it in the river. This opening begins a gruesome and exciting experiment in tension and domestic turbulence, where a mad doctor commits murder, his Hippocratic Oath now hypocritical.
Dr. Genessier is responsible for the disfigurement of his lovely daughter Christiane whom he keeps like a bird in a cage; a slight thing of beauty, to be cared for and under his control. With the help of his assistant Louise, she kidnaps blue eyed women and he cuts off their faces to transplant upon his daughter’s scarred visage. The doctor is both compassionate and unsympathetic, helping sick children one moment and applying his precision skills to the supple flesh of helpless victims the next. He is more concerned with proving his procedure a success than desiring its superficial outcome: to save his daughter’s life. Christiane is revolted when she discovers that innocents are being harmed and rebels against her father, but is kept prisoner by her injury.
Franju films the first operation with surgical precision, showing the scalpel slice into the skin and the fleshy mask lifted off the victim, a stolen identity to be born again. The cinematography has a New Wave appeal as the camera travels around the house, a cinema verity excursion that depicts a life-like location and not a soundstage. The baying of hounds often breaks the tense silences, and Dr. Genessier is often visually linked with the dogs while his fragile daughter is equated with birds; even her thin curvaceous neck and delicate eyes evoke an avian nature.
Christiane finally succeeds in a poetic gesture that frees her from imprisonment while her father becomes food of the dogs.
Final Grade: (B+)