Losing face: the hysteria of identity in face-swapping films

by Kate

A still from Joel Frankenheimer's 1966 film "Seconds."

For the most part we all grow up with this idea that the person you are is separate from the sack of skin and bones you lug it around in. The self is an untouchable essence locked up inside the body somewhere. In a way, the face is just an afterthought. It’s the way your self communicates with the world. But when you think about it, human life is centered around the face. It’s the one thing on the body that doesn’t really change over time. Sure, you get some wrinkles, but the essential components stay in place for your whole life – eyes, nose, mouth, and their relationships to one another. They don’t change. Despite how similarly human faces are formed, they belong to specific people. When the face of someone deceased appears in a dream, it haunts you through the day. Often, you recognize a face in the street, even without remembering how you know the person it belongs to. It’s haunting just how solidly specific faces become branded in our memories.

Think about your mother. You can always pick your mother’s face in a crowd. But let’s say her face were to change. What if she were to suddenly have a different one? Would she still be the same person? Logically, the answer would obviously yes. What about in a movie? The answer is probably no. But in the movies, logic need not always apply, and we are free to pursue other avenues of thought. And in the course of exploring this idea, filmmakers reveal that the answer may not be so simple after all.

Mapping identity through the face

There’s a whole genre of movies where the face is the central drama of the film. The question becomes: what relationship does the face have to identity? These moves have similarities. There’s typically an unveiling of the new face and an intermediate period of suspense where it remains covered by bandages or a mask—all features are muted, creating an eerie, uncanny figure. There’s momentary relief when the face appears again.

In most movies on this subject, there is a kind of hysteria that results of trading your face for another one and an identity crisis that goes along with it. If you were to inhabit someone else’s body, would you not, in a sense, become them in more than appearance? It’s a good question. After all, don’t we really create our identity through other people?

Shattered selves eyeswithoutfranju

In some cases, the self is destroyed by a lack of face. The iconic example here is Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. In the film, a girl’s father sets out to give her a new face when her’s is destroyed in an accident. He accomplishes this by capturing girls, surgically removing their faces and attempting to graft them onto this daughter. But one after another, the experiments fail. Christiane (Edith Scob) locked away with little human contact, her disfigured face hidden behind a mask. Her appearance is mannequin-like, an object onto which we project our own ideas and personalities. Without the expressiveness, the individuality of a face to call her own, she drifts slowly into mania.

frankenheimer seconds image In John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, a similar displacement occurs. In this cult sci-fi flick, Arthur Hamilton discovers a service that will allow him to obtain a whole new life through plastic surgery that alters his face. After the procedure, he awakes as Tony Wilson (now played by Rock Hudson). The mirrored image above demonstrates how the change has affected his psyche, fracturing and dulling it. The transition doesn’t come without consequences. Wilson feels lost in his new existence. He quickly finds out that a new romantic interest was actually placed by the company to ensure a smooth transition to his second life. His neighbors are all transplants from the company too. Instead of a the blissful new life he paid for, he finds himself unmoored in an artificial world. Miserable, he opts for another transition, this time with fatal results, as the company chooses to put him down.

Star power 

The star system was all but entirely based on individual faces. A specific actor or actress on the marquee spoke volumes about the role and the movie itself. Certain stars become inseparable from their personas on screen. In a way, it didn’t even matter what role they played.

dark passage

Something odd happens in Dark Passage, in which Humphrey Bogart plays Vincent Parry, a wrongly accused man on the lam. This movie is mainly remembered because of the device it uses. Throughout the first half of the film, subjective camera is used, which puts viewers in the position of the protagonist but also prevents us from seeing his face—up until he gets a new one, anyway. Because his old face is plastered all over newspapers, he decides to trade it in for a new one. This, he accomplishes by visiting a surgeon recommended by his cab driver. Like the other films, there is the momentary worry before the bandages come off, that all might not be well. However, when the bandages are stripped away, Bogart’s rugged but handsome features appear, and the film ceases to be in subjective camera.


Once Parry takes on Bogie’s visage, it’s surprising how little changes. Even with his new face, Parry quickly runs into trouble. The surgery actually does little to help him. It’s almost like his former identity shines through. The face itself matters very little in how he’s perceived. He stills seems somehow criminal, neither does the transition stop Bacall’s character from falling in love with him. In a way, the film almost is like an elongated joke about Bogart’s celebrity. After all, how could changing identity be easy when you end up saddled with one of the most famous faces of the era, and indeed, of all time? Of course he’s going to be recognized. When we see his face, we know exactly what the movie will become and who will come out on top in the end. The film ceases to be about Vincent Parry and becomes about Humphrey Bogart.

We become attached to faces, those of our friends and family members—even our own. It’s comforting to see myself in the bathroom mirror, to know I have a face that’s just mine, with blemishes and lines I recognize, even if it startles me sometimes (is this what people see when they look at me?). It begs the question: does identity bear any relationship to what’s on the outside? What makes someone an individual? Is that self immutable—safe from outside forces that would erode it? Through the face, the screen’s natural identifier, filmmakers can grapple with these questions, probing the unanswerable central question: What is an identity?