Monsters and Dust

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A copy of the death mask of L'Inconnue de la Seine became the must-have item of the season, and seasons to come; her closed eyes and peaceful expression graced the walls of the pieds-a-terre holding the parties and happenings of Bohemian society. The demand for a copy became so great that a new mode of production emerged—masks were created using the negatives of photographs of L’Inconnue’s death mask, which had the unintended effect of adding detail to her features over time. As her face became a fixture in the hippest European homes, it bobbed to the surface of contemporary literature and art; Camus, Rilke, and Nabokov were among those who contemplated her beauty, the meaning of her smile, and the compulsion of falling in love with a mask.

After the turn of the century, she continued to float like a specter through European consciousness. At least one critic commented on her influence on beauty standards throughout the first half of the twentieth century, her features evoked by Brigitte Bardot and Greta Garbo; in fact, Roland Barthes compared Garbo’s face to a death mask. 

L’Inconnue had a second act as Rescue Anne, a CPR training doll developed in 1960 by Norwegian toy makers, who used L’Inconnue’s distinctive face to personalize the mannequin, and gave her a body again. The girl who tried nearly a century earlier to die by drowning was destined to be revived again and again by mouth-to-plastic-mouth, the necrophilic undertones now made clear with her nickname: “The Most Kissed Girl In The World.” Rescue Anne was updated over the years, fitted with anatomic replicas of the human respiratory tract in plastic, and later, with computerized parts, but all the while, her face was L’Inconnue’s, lifted from Victorian Paris and carried a century forward, an archaic image used to evoke an urgency measured in seconds.

All of Paris ached for her, loved her, blithely unaware that in fact, according to one contemporary expert in facial casting named Claire Forestier, she may not have been dead at all. Her facial features were too firm to show the suffering of death and the bloat of the Seine. Was a mundane cast of a live Parisian girl dressed in myth and injected into the cultural moment of death-obsession, and did that girl silently watch the hoax blow up, ironically passing unrecognized by the crowds who thought her mask was as beguiling as the Mona Lisa?

It doesn’t matter. They wanted her dead, they loved her that way: so they replicated her face until it didn’t belong to a body at all, but was filled with a soul.