Mad Science/Mad Love and the Female Body in Pieces
Allison de Fren
Citation: de Fren, Allison. “Mad Science/Mad Love and the Female Body in Pieces.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 19, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/019.s0103
Abstract: This video essay examines a sub-genre of the Frankenstein film in which a mad doctor attempts to revive a disfigured/dead daughter/fiancée by stealing parts from female victims. As the video demonstrates, the (often unmet) critical potential of such films is their narrative condensation of the part-for-whole logic through which female bodies are often represented in the media.
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My mandate for this project was to address the Frankenstein legacy film through the lens of gender. Although The Bride of Frankenstein was an obvious choice, I decided to examine a sub-genre that, for the sake of expediency, I will call the Body Parts film, in which a mad doctor/scientist attempts to revivify/revive a disfigured daughter/decapitated fiancée by kidnapping and stealing parts from other women. This filmic variation-on-a-theme represents a twist on the internal conflict that we often associate with Dr. Frankenstein between the clandestine pursuit of forbidden knowledge and the normative pursuit of romantic love and family, wherein his increasing isolation and neglect of his loved ones helps to signal his wayward fate. Here, instead, the mad doctor/scientist commits his unnatural acts in the name of romantic and familial love, a set-up that generates new possibilities for critical reflection on a core motivating force in a great deal of cinematic entertainment. Indeed, one need only contemplate the number of Hollywood blockbusters in which a male hero commits spectacular acts of violence for the sake of love and family to glimpse its reach.
Unlike traditional Hollywood fare in which we cheer on the male protagonist’s attempt to save his family, the Body Parts film is a claustrophobic chamber drama with crimeless victims whose anatomical dismemberments occur under the watchful and guilty eyes of the loved ones for whose benefit they are being conducted. That both love objects and victims feel trapped and are made to suffer under a stifling patriarchal control is a key aspect of these films’ critical potential in relation to gender. By placing into narrative conversation and spatial proximity an overarching contradiction in the cinematic treatment of women between ideal love, on the one hand, and physical degradation and dissection, on the other, they reveal the extent to which one feeds off the other to the benefit of neither. The film that best exemplifies this is the sub-genre’s urtext, Georges Franju’s 1960 filmic adaptation of Jean Redon’s novel, Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage).
Franju’s film is best known for its central heterograft operation scene, and it was for this reason that I decided to organize my video essay around it. It has been said that during the film’s screening at the 1960 Edinburgh Film Festival, numerous audience members fainted during the scene despite the fact that the film was shot in black and white and there is very little blood. Its impact is, arguably, achieved via a cinematic approach that Franju cultivated in his 1949 documentary Blood of the Beasts (Le Sang Des Bêtes), which has been so closely associated with Eyes Without a Face that they’re packaged together on the Criterion DVD release of the latter. The documentary is ostensibly about an abattoir on the outskirts of Paris, but what initially interested Franju was the area surrounding it, a scenic field of discarded curios and locals hawking their wares, where children play and lovers stroll nearby. As in Eyes Without a Face, viewers are drawn in by lyrical b/w cinematography and playful compositions that invite us to take visual delight in the everyday. Having become visually sensitized, we are then led into the slaughterhouse – the equivalent of the documentary-style heterograft scene in Eyes Without a Face – where an unflinching camera records the systematic butchery on which the surrounding area, in all its charm, is fed.
Although one film is a documentary and the other an art-horror film, both use the interplay between fiction and fact, visual pleasure and visual truth, to get at an underlying reality integrally linked to the monstrous effects of industrial modernity. Franju is, in effect, enacting the radical potential of film described by Walter Benjamin when he compares the surgeon to the cameraman in their shared ability to penetrate the habitual gaze of the everyday. Benjamin believed that this use of the cinematic apparatus required a certain degree of shock, which is what Franju attempts in these films, famously describing them as “horror in homeopathic doses” and insisting that violence should always be used as a means to an end rather than narcotic spectacle.
I found Franju’s body of work so compelling that I had trouble resisting its pull while making the Body Parts video essay. In one iteration, I attempted to incorporate Blood of Beasts. In another, I tried to draw comparisons between Franju’s cinematic sleight of hand in the operation scene – in which he gives horror audiences what they came for (to see something gory) but not in the way they expect it – with the anatomical trick films of silent film pioneer Georges Méliès, whom Franju so admired that he made a 1952 biographical film about him entitled The Great Méliès (Le Grand Méliès). Both iterations were, however, eventually discarded as I realized that the clearest way to convey Franju’s singular vision in Eyes Without a Face was by comparison with its half-formed, monstrous off-spring, The Awful Dr. Orloff and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. Both were exploitation films released in 1962 that use the Body Parts plot structure as the impetus for the kind of lurid and objectifying shots of female bodies that Franju so carefully avoided. The video essay ends where it also begins, with the campy parody of the Body Parts film, Frankenhooker (1990), which I suggest is truer to the spirit of Eyes Without a Face than its early imitators.
Presented in videographic succession, these Body Parts films, while representing a small offshoot of the Frankenstein lineage, exemplify its ongoing relevance for addressing human-technology relations in general, and the part-for-whole logic through which the female body is cinematically represented, in particular.
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