10 Best Movies on Crisis-Ridden Facial Surgery: Faces are immensely important. First impressions are said to be formed based on a person’s looks, although it is also said that it takes 5 minutes or less to get an impression of how the person’s inner-self might be. But, still, are we not fascinated by our face and the identity it brings out? Don’t we remember our face in freeze-frames, while conversing with a friend, showcasing genuine emotions? If we ask a facial surgeon on ‘whether the people’s identity change by altering their face?’ He/she would answer ‘no’.

That the purpose of surgery is to allow a person to get a face that best reflects their personality. Maybe that purpose isn’t always accomplished: some end up unhappier; for some a new face offers a force of good, hope. With a promising future of stem cells and facial transplantation, we don’t know what kind of magical offering this young field would imbue on our society. But, we do know how movies have dealt with the themes of facial surgery or corrective reconstruction.

Facial disfigurement is one of the important themes dealt with in cinema as earlier as in the German Expressionist era (“The Man Who Laughs”, 1928). While films like “Elephant Man” (1980) or the brief sequence in “Under the Skin” (2013) challenged our entrenched view on disfigurement, movies, in general, have always seen villainy in facial disfigurement; as a ploy to lay a path of vengeance. Phantom, Darth Vader, Freddy Kreuger, Joker, Leather-face, Quasimodo, etc., have become a symbol of monstrosity on-screen, while in our real world, there are thousands of facially different people doing astounding things.

The aim of the list I have prepared is not to ponder over the insipid metaphor of a scarred face but to identify movies that deal with the inner-emotional as well as external turbulence that accompanies a ‘new’ face. These movies are about men & women with changing/changed faces, who haven’t reached a point of self-acceptance.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

Honorable mention:

Face/Off (1997)

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As Roger Ebert called it, Face/Off is “inconceivably implausible.” John Woo’s well-shot and repetitively violent face transplantation movie aren’t watched for its psychological insights. The alternate heroism and villainy of John Travolta & Nicolas Cage, plus the overblown action stakes hails from the typical Hollywood territory, although it absolutely works as a full-blooded action genre piece.

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10. A Woman’s Face (1941)

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George Cukor’s old-fashioned thriller and melodramatic character study follow a bitter, scarred woman Anna Holm (Joan Crawford), seeking spiritual transformation after plastic surgery. The demented antagonist, abducted child, and a few other pretentious narrative elements stand in the way of sensitively exploring the embittered emotions of the central character. But Crawford offers one of her best performances without being imbibed by her customary glamour turn. Director Cukor finely draws a tense situation among all the ridiculous nature. The film, of course, uses the age-old Hollywood idea that a disfigured face leads to emotional deformity, while a little facial surgery would bring up a pure heart.

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9. Dark Passage (1947)

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In Delmer Daves’ cool, noir film, Humphrey Bogart’s wronged protagonist Vincent Parry has an implausible back-alley face-lift. Vincent does that act after escaping from the prison, where he was confined for killing his wife. Obviously, Vincent is a good guy, and with the help of a beauteous young woman (Lauren Bacall), he tries to clear up his name.  Despite the sketchy characterizations, “Dark Passage” works because of the making and a well-rounded supporting cast. The first half-hour of the film uses the first-person pov, which was actually absorbing rather than being a gimmick. Unlike many other film noir and facial surgery, the protagonist’s problems in the narrative come from external subjects; not due to character flaws.

8. The Skin I Live In (2011)

Elena Anaya in The Skin I Live In (2011)
Elena Anaya in The Skin I Live In (2011)

Graceful provocateur Mr. Pedro Almodovar’s mix of melodrama and mystery takes place (for the most part) in an isolated mansion owned by renowned facial transplant surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas). His obsessive work nature has indirectly resulted in the death of his wife in an accident. Now, he takes up a new obsession –a beautiful young woman Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), is locked up in an upstairs bedroom, cloaked in a flesh-colored body stocking. The twisted sexuality, the painful coincidences, and the near-parody treatment of mystery are all the familiar Almodovar touches. There are narrative deficiencies in the film, which to an extent, are masked by the exploration of the conflict between our inner self and the face & body, which serves as the abode.

Also Read: Knives and Skin (2019): ‘Fantasia’ Review – A Curated mess you would like to watch

7. Goodnight Mommy (2015) 

Susanne Wuest bandage-wrapped in Goodnight Mommy (2015)
Susanne Wuest in Goodnight Mommy (2015)

Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s disturbing psychological horror depicts the degrading bond between a bandage-wrapped mother and her 10-year-old twin boys, Lukas and Elias. As a gruesome genre picture, “Goodnight Mommy” works since it includes the double scary propositions: an unloving mother and an evil kid. The reconstructive plastic surgery of the mother (who had met up with an accident) makes the boys think whether she is their mom or some impostor ‘mummy’. The boys playing the ‘who-am-I’ game with Mom is one of the film’s riveting sequences (and let’s not forget that torture scene). Nevertheless, despite all the uncertainty and tense atmosphere, I felt it could have developed the central characters a bit more to convey a rich, psychological profundity.

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6. Time (2006) 

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South Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk’s fraught love story explores how people yearning for change seek it in a new face than looking for a spiritual makeover. Young woman Seh-hee, who is insecure about her looks & body, is on the verge of nervous collapse. In one of her love-making sessions with her boyfriend (of 2 years), she apologizes for having boring features. One day she disappears, worrying about her boyfriend. Seh-hee eventually returns with a new name and a new face. As in all of Kim’s movies, “Time” works as an existential tragedy and as an examination of our identity crisis. It becomes a profound experience when we identify the film’s central questions: what happens when our love decays in the passage of time, where nothing lasts forever? And how can these quick, consumer-culture surgeries bring about an extreme transformation in our lives?  

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5. Open Your Eyes (1997)

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High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

The first thing you might ask after opening your eyes to Alejandro Amenabar’s thrilling romantic, sci-fi melodrama is, “What’s it about”? The film’s protagonist Caesar prides himself on not sleeping with the same girl more than two times. And knowing this, Caesar’s friend Pelayo makes the mistake of introducing his attractive girlfriend Sofia to him. A tragedy strikes, and Caesar hides his face behind an emotionless mask. Its layered script, on the one hand, questions the breach between perception and reality (like “Matrix”), while on the other hand, it works as a philosophical investigation of our obsession with external beauty. Eduardo Noriega as Caesar offers an effective performance to convey the torments and disarray, despite wearing heavy makeup [“Open Your Eyes” was remade to “Vanilla Sky” starring Tom Cruise].

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4. Phoenix (2014)

At the outset, German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s post-war tale of mistaken identity seems to have the most quotidian plot structure. It is about disfigured former nightclub singer Nelly (Nina Hoss), who had been at the Auschwitz camp. A surgeon gives Nelly a new face, although she wants to live her old life with her pianist husband, Johannes. Nelly finds him, but he doesn’t recognize her. Johannes also drags ‘new Nelly’ to his basement and pitches a desperate idea. “Phoenix’s” storyline is a little implausible, although Petzold, with his subtle directorial touches, extracts the largely metaphorical dimensions. The central character’s quest elegantly touches on how face plays a vital role in constructing our identity and in evoking memories. And the film remains compelling till its fireball of an ending, thanks to the emotionally complex performance of Nina Hoss. She perfectly symbolizes the uninhibited inner scars that accompany a new facial identity.

Read Our Review of Phoenix (2014)

3. Seconds (1966)

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John Frankenheimer’s underrated, paranoia-era thriller is about an old banker, struck in a mid-life crisis, going through radical plastic surgery to become a much younger, free-spirited person. The visuals of old John Randolph transforming to handsome Rock Hudson may raise plausibility issues, but this cult classic is all about humans’ pursuit of new identities. Right from the riveting opening sequence from Saul Bass, “Seconds” stresses how one’s internal persona will conflict with their own polished external identity. The movie also examines the cultural divide between liberated youths and the conservative parents of the American 60s. The whole surgery, plus the identity reconstruction sequence, comments on human restlessness in achieving the unattainable. As psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Zizek expertly puts it: “Seconds is about the perils of wanting too much or dreaming the wrong dream.”

2. Eyes Without a Face (1960) | Director: Georges Franju

Alida Valli in Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Alida Valli in Eyes Without a Face (1960)

Georges Franju’s poetic horror/thriller is a commentary on the folly of science and an attack on the celebration of surface beauty. The storyline concerns a delirious plastic surgeon Dr. Genessier who is responsible for an accident that left his daughter Christiane with a facial disfigurement. The surgeon and his assistant tried to reconstruct the girl’s face by kidnapping young women who have similar facial features. Only in 2005, an actual face transplant was performed, so the film is definitely ahead of its time, especially with the theme of cosmetic surgery obsession. Film critic Dave Kehr calls it “Poetry of terror,” and the chilling, nocturnal black-and-white cinematography withholds some of the greatest visuals ever concocted in cinema. The fascinating aspect of “Eyes without a Face” is Christiane’s eerie mask which insists on how less corporeal one becomes with the loss of face. But this isn’t a film that depicts disfigurement solely as an element to terrify. We also get to know the fragile, child-like nature of Christiane caught betwixt the maniacal vanity of her father.

Related to Facial Surgery Movies – Eyes Without A Face (1960) Review: A Masterwork of Surgical Filmmaking

1. The Face of Another (1966)

Avant-garde Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara’s morbid character and societal study refreshingly question our notion of individuality. The plot revolves around a young engineer Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai), whose facial features are completely destroyed in a lab explosion. He wears white bandages, and dark glasses, awfully treats his wife, and talks like a perturbed philosopher. Okuyama’s plastic surgeon Dr. Hori makes him to be a test subject for a medical experiment. The surgeon offers a temporary mask that has the facial features of a total stranger. With the newly instilled self-confidence and persona, Okuyama walks through everyday life, adapting to dual identities. “The Face of Another” is diffused with unforgettable imagery and stupendous performance (from Nakadai) to explore a face’s limits and freedom. It thought-provokingly probes on how our looks influence our behavior. The film’s twisted conclusion also comments on a society that gets increasingly alienated by its obsession with facial beauty.

Other Film Lists You Should Check Out:

15 Great South Korean Movies on Netflix
15 Must-See Surreal Films
10 Most Unsettling Movies You Should Watch
15 Best Movies Set in a Mental Asylum

Facial Surgery Links: Wikipedia, Medical News Today

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