The other day I went to Ikea and bought some weird fabric with a bunch of eyeballs on it. (For use in my classroom. Because I teach middle school and they appreciate weird things.) I was driving home and the radio found its way to 80s on 8, and after a few songs, “Eyes Without a Face” happened to come on.
Now I was a Billy Idol fan growing up and had that single on a 45, later adding the Rebel Yell album to my tape collection. Always dug that song. I hadn’t ever thought much about the meaning of it other than that it was about some chick who done him dirt. She either cheated on him and/or possibly became a pole dancer in Vegas, I don’t know. Didn’t really matter much; I just liked the song.
But as years went on, whenever it came on the radio, I started to wonder: what exactly does that mean, Billy? Eyes without a face? Pfff. Musta been serious substances he was using back in the 80s. Whatever, volume up.
It wasn’t until very recently that I discovered the song contained an allusion to a 1960 French horror film (adapted from a novel) called Les Yeux Sans Visage, which translates to—you guessed it—Eyes Without a Face. (Oh, and “Les Yeux Sans Visage” is sung repeatedly as a background chorus in the song, but I never knew what the heck they were saying. I’m pretty sure I was fixated on these things in the video: Billy’s disembodied head, Billy’s sneer, pointy haircuts, Billy’s fist, more of Billy’s sneer, and if I recall correctly, fire.) Anyway, though I enjoy classic movies (favorites: Roman Holiday, Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and just about everything Hitchcock), I, um, have to admit, I never heard of this one.
So I watched it and realized, here, I haven’t been giving ol’ Billy (or his songwriter) enough credit.
The film is about surgeon Dr. Génessier, whose daughter Christiane is disfigured in a car accident. Her once-beautiful face is now hidden behind an expressionless mask, with only her eyes intact peering through.
But her father and his assistant believe they can surgically transplant another young woman’s face onto Christiane’s. Of course, there are no volunteer donors. The first young woman lured to the doctor’s mansion does not survive the surgery, so the assistant dumps her body in the river, and Dr. Génessier identifies it in the morgue as Christiane’s, believing that he will now be able to quietly pursue his medical experiment. The second “guinea pig” survives the surgery but jumps out of a second story window to her death.
It seems like the grafted face is working for Christiane until day by day, the skin’s appearance grows worse. The graft is not taking and the necrosis must be surgically removed. Back to the mask. But Christiane is fed up with her father’s doings, which she never really supported in the first place, actually. And when the third victim is brought to the house, well, things ended in a way I didn’t expect. It was a pretty cool movie, and now I think it’s given me a new appreciation for what I always thought of as a good song with an absurd title.
See, in the movie, the only parts of Christiane’s face that are really her anymore are her eyes; the rest is disfigured. And her father, doing what he does out of a twisted kind of love, is hell-bent on trying to preserve her, trying to restore her beauty. That will never happen, just as the speaker in the song will not be able to preserve the love he once had. Something once beautiful and sacred is now destroyed. Perhaps you could even say that the actions of the woman in the song have made her hideous (“got no human grace”). She is so changed from the woman he originally fell in love with. The speaker realizes there is no going back now, no fixing her or it. Their love is a rotting, dying thing. Well, that’s my take on it, anyway.
And so all that nerdy analyzing inspired me to use the fabric as a subject.
Did I mention the cool DVD cover art?