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Eye of the Beholder

Review by Cynthia Fuchs
Posted 28 January 2000

Written and Directed by Stephan Elliot

Starring Ewan McGregor, 
Ashley Judd, Patrick Bergin, 
Geneviève Bujold, 
K.D. Lang, and Jason Priestly


Wigs. Ideally, they can change everything: your appearance, your self-image, your imagined possibilities, your identity. In the movies, wigs can also effect change, but at the same time, they carry moral meanings, they can suggest artifice and disguise, dashed dreams and pathologies. That is, wig-wearers in movies -- the ones who are at least moderately obvious to viewers -- tend to be "in trouble," either uncertain about their identities, or on the run.

In Stephan Elliot's movies, wigs are apparently all about morality. In his first major release, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a trio of transvestites takes off across the Australian outback, in search of love and careers: their wigs are fabulous and they find what they're looking for. In his new film, Eye of the Beholder, the wigs are more expensive and chic than those of the desert queens. But this turns out to mean that the character wearing them -- Joanna (Ashley Judd) -- is morally bankrupt, or perhaps just morally confused. The movie doesn't judge her, exactly, but it does reveal her dreadful childhood and obsession with astrology (she's a Pisces, so people can mistake her pendant-sign for a shark:  you know, it can't stop moving or it dies). In a word, Joanna's a straight-up movie-style psycho, and you await her redemption or punishment or both.

In the meantime, you see her in a lot of wigs.

Eye of the Beholder -- based on Marc Behm's novel -- is clearly fond of its major, titular metaphor, naming its protagonist "the Eye," as in, your entry point for vision and identification. Appropriately, he's a surveillance expert, working with the highest of tech (he's got a rifle-styled camera-audio-recorder that's just grim). As spy-guy for the British Consulate in Washington, D.C., Eye is usually observing white collar criminals and adulterers and reporting back to an administration via his handler (whom he calls his "guardian angel"), Hilary (k.d. lang), who never leaves her computer monitor. Whenever Eye calls in, Hil's there to advise, fret, and carry out whatever nutso quest he sends her on.

At first, Eye seems your run-of-the-mill surveillance expert, a little bland, prone to wearing dowdy clothes, scrunching up his eyes, and scrunching behind his camera lenses. Then he's assigned to follow the son of his wealthy supervisor, and finds that the young man is cavorting with a beautiful woman and extracting much money from his bank account. But aside from this standard, you-know-where-it's-headed subplot, you learn something far more interesting: Eye has his own wacko hang up: namely, he talks to his very precocious nine-year-old daughter, Lucy, who seems to be everywhere with him on the job, but isn't really. She's in cars, on balconies, in bell towers. And she's chatty, asking kid questions and encouraging Eye to reveal his feelings about any number of topics. That is, she's Eye's own figment, a leftover from his past, which includes an unnamed wife who left him, taking their young daughter with her. Now, this departure seems to have taken place years ago and Eye's behavior -- according to Hil -- has been erratic since then, but everyone at his place of business sees no problem with trusting him with high power sleuthing duties.

So much for believability. Clearly, this is a movie intended to explore ideas, not realities. Still, it's too bad those ideas are less than brilliant and occasionally downright dumb. The Eye business is obvious enough, but the "motivation" assigned to Joanna is retro to the point of distraction. She's damaged, you see, so she needs to be protected and loved, not incarcerated or somehow treated for her illness. Thematizing and messing with the process by which you identify with movie characters is an old trick which has been done well in a number of movies, say, Peeping Tom, Taxi Driver, Strange Days, The Conversation, or Hitchcock's just re-released Rear Window. Eye of the Beholder evokes all of these films, then dilutes their variously intense takes on voyeurism to the point of tedium.

For instance, on his first night on the wealthy-son case, Eye watches from his car as Joanna (whose name he doesn't know yet because she's posing as someone else and wearing a wig) seduces and then kills her date. Coming at him with a knife behind her back (a shiny blade that you/Eye can't help but see, thanks to telephoto lensing), she stabs him repeatedly, blood flies everywhere, and then she wails with grief: "Merry fucking Christmas, daddy!" And then, she's naked, disposing of the body, crying in the rain. Lucy's voice comes to her daddy while he peeps this awful scene: "Don't leave her alone. She's just a little girl."

Okay. So it's clear by now that Eye of the Beholder's not-so-original spin on the psycho-killer thriller is that the detective figure has his own problems, problems so severe that he could be making everything up. Or maybe he's just projecting his longing for his "little girl" onto another little girl who needs a daddy. Or maybe he's falling in love with her. In this movie's curious universe, any of these possibilities is equally preposterous, so perhaps it doesn't matter which one you pick.

The plot unfolds as Eye tracks Joanna from U.S. city to U.S. city (though much of the film is shot in Quebec, passing for U.S. cities). Though he envisions himself her "guardian angel," essentially, he stalks her, setting up little cameras outside her various apartment windows, following her down alleys (which she seems to walk down while wearing fur coats no matter what city she's in), and buying snow globes for each place he visits. This last may pass for a "personal touch," as I can't think of another movie stalker -- or serial killer, for that matter -- who's had quite this tic. In his mind, he's collecting them for Lucy, who persistently reminds him that the reason she's no longer "real" is that he was always too busy working and traveling, so that wifey finally lost her patience and left. It's all so sad. And so convenient. If Lucy wasn't narrating and the snow globes weren't marking locations, the movie would be even more unintelligible than it is.

Still, taking the movie on its own demented terms -- which arguably, make it appear gutsy compared to most multiplex fodder -- you might appreciate its next giant metaphorical step, which is to have Joanna meet and possibly fall in love with a blind man, a rich, generous, San Francisco-based winemaker named Alex Leonard (Patrick Bergin looking tweedy and stiff and not convincingly blind). Jealous (inexplicably, but who's counting?), Eye discovers a few more slivers of Joanna's background via a visit with her shrink/mentor Dr. Brault (Genevieve Bujold), for instance, that she smokes Gitanos and drinks cognac because her shrink does or that she might have been abused (and here the metaphor extends to "All women are abused"). You could even intuit that Joanna's current murder spree is warranted, that she's fighting a serious fear of abandonment as well as acting on the hard lesson Brault drilled into her: never trust men, always protect yourself, always wear wigs.

Eye wants to undo all this damage, of course, seeing it as a way to undo his own (read: his heavy guilt about being a bad dad). And the movie wants you to want him to succeed, sort of. But really, it doesn't make a very persuasive case, because it's hung up on victimizing Joanna to the point that she's incapacitated, unable to make any decisions or take any actions: she suffers repeated beat downs, by car wrecks, drugs, and men (one played by Jason Priestly in bleached-blond-thug drag, and -- who knew? -- he does a decent madman). And eventually Eye gets his chance to cradle her in his arms, a couple of times, though the film leaves options open, not quite killing her off, but not quite salvaging her either.

And all the while, Joanna's wigs are increasingly disheveled.

Ashley Judd's been doing talk shows to promote the film, clearly trying to capitalize on the surprise popularity of her previous film, Double Jeopardy, in which she plays Libby, a wronged wife who gets to kill her conniving asshole of a husband. Judd has observed that viewers responded to Libby because she was a "strong woman," and that she sees the new film as part of that same fabric. But where Libby appears to be a resolute, intelligent, and often inspired vengeance machine (with a sympathetic motivation: she's a mom!), Joanna is represented as a victim, who commits deranged violence not as survival but as self-destruction, all carried out under the watchful gaze of a ravaged, frankly silly man with way too much money to spend (actually, both Eye and Joanna seem to have endless and unexplained funds, as if they've just touched down from The Thomas Crown Affair).

You could write off Eye of the Beholder as trashy, disjointed, or plain bad filmmaking, but it's more complicated than that. It's not "bad" so much as it's an ill-conceived gesture toward stretching the voyeur's game out, an attempt to force you -- the moviegoer who's seen it all -- to reconsider power relations between viewer and viewed, deal with two protagonists who are equally unstable and treacherous, and rethink how you behold beauty and sexuality. Unfortunately, it only gestures.

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