“To avoid problems with European censors, Borkon cautioned Franju not to include too much blood (which would upset French censors), refrain from showing animals getting tortured (which would upset English censors) and leave out mad-scientist characters (which would upset German censors). All three of these were part of the film”
Well, this French film from 1960 was far creepier than its time period implies. I’ve been shocked like this before (just watch the entirety of The Innocents), but the film starts out so eerily that I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
Doctor Génessier is a well to-do surgeon in an affluent Parisian suburb. He’s mourning the death of his wife and now he’s just identified his daughter Christiane’s body, mangled from a car crash and pulled out of the river by police. At the funeral, he and a lady friend appear blank-faced and then trudge home…where his daughter is waiting for him.
She’s the titular character without any skin on her face, though she’s somehow able to speak and cry etc. the way a facefull person would. But she’s miserable; she misses her fiance (who thinks she’s dead – and he works with her damn father), and she feels like a guinea pig for her dad. She’s being kept mostly with her consent under house arrest while her father locates a suitable face donor – whether they’re willing or not.
The movie has a cracking score, but it’s used so sparingly that, along with the stable, continuously-shot scenes, at times you feel like you’re watching a documentary. Which makes it all the scarier, because the medical scenes are horrifyingly gruesome. Ever want to hear the sound of forceps snipping open facial veins? How about skin being tugged and lifted like a bleeding pancake off of red-raw flesh? Well, this movie’s for you!
At the heart of it, though, is a troubled father-daughter relationship that, when stripped of all that kidnapping and mutilation, most adult daughters can probably relate to. And Edith Scob manages to portray Christiane’s predicament so well while forced to wear a rigid, opaque mask for almost all of her screen time.
And for a disarmingly frightening film, there are some doses of very lovely, poetic imagery, including a wee bit of foreshadowing I didn’t catch until a skim of a rewatch. It takes some of the edge of the tension and gore, and turns it into more of a melancholic slow-burning, psychological horror. But yeah, about that ending. Really makes use of that very theatrical, almost demented circus-like score.