Side effect first: I’m of a sufficient age to keep getting the old Billy Idol song stuck in my head whenever I see the title of this film; if you are as well, feel free to listen to it at the link above and get it out of your system. Because 1960 French film has absolutely nothing to do with that song.
Instead, this is the tragic tale of a father who’s going to desperate lengths to help his daughter. Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a renowned plastic surgeon, has been guilt-ridden after causing a car crash which disfigured his daughter’s face. But he’d already been conducting experiments in skin grafting, working towards the ability to do a full face transplant – so he steps up his research in a desperate effort to heal Christiane (Edith Scob), who’s been shut away in the house and wearing a plastic full-face mask in the meantime. The only problem is that his research suggests he would need a living donor. And thus far, his donors haven’t been exactly 100% willing…..
Critics and scholars don’t seem all that sure how to categorize this film. Dr. Génessier’s actions are horrific – he sends his secretary Louise (Allida Valli) to find his victims by befriending students and other young women new to the city and luring them back to Génessier’s house. There’s also some body horror and gore – one mid-film sequence actually shows Dr. Génessier performing the surgery to remove one donor’s face, complete with oozing blood and peeling and lifting the skin off and….well, to be honest I had started covering my eyes when the scalpel came out so I couldn’t really tell you, but from the glimpses I got it sure looked oogy.
But Dr. Génessier’s motivation keeps this from feeling like a straight-up horror film. He doesn’t like that he has to do this; he always hopes each time that this time the surgery will work and he won’t have to put himself or Christiane through this ordeal again. He even intends to care for and look after his donors once the surgery is complete, giving them the sumptuous attic suite and the mask he’s created for Christiane thus far (although, it rarely works out that way….). And Christiane is showing signs that she’s not entirely compliant either – she’d been engaged to her father’s surgical assistant Jacques (François Guérin), but has been kept from contacting him “until the surgery finally works”. And each time it fails. So she’s kept from calling him even longer, and watching her father try to bring in yet another unwilling donor and going through it all again. Christiane is starting to lose faith that this is ever going to work, and when Dr. Génessier and Louise ignore her pleas to just give up, she realizes ultimately she has to act somehow. (There’s more gore in that scene – all I’ll say is that I suspect that the creators of the Game Of Thrones TV adaptation may have been inspired by this film when they were trying to kill off the character Ramsay Bolton.)
My biggest complaint is that the film doesn’t really flesh Christiane’s character out much further than this; she is nothing more than the pitiful unwilling subject of her father’s work. She wrings her hands a bit wishing her father would stop, she gracefully wanders through her attic suite, once or twice she dares to call Jacques just to hear his voice and then hang up. In one scene she visits the lab to cuddle the stray dogs her father has been using for his early experiments. And that’s kind of it; we’re meant to assume things about her based on “she’s disfigured and ashamed about it, because she’s a girl”. But the film moves at a fast enough clip that I didn’t really catch on to that until after the fact. Even here, though, we could have cut a few minutes out of that surgery scene to give Christiane at least one more monologue, yes?
Nevertheless it’s a complete story. A weird and oogy one, but a complete one.