Eye of the Beholder, the arty suspense flick from writer-director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert), is so hyper-conscious of its own movie-ness that it’s hard to care very much about the characters moving listlessly through its scenery. Working in a genre that can be wildly entertaining and artistically satisfying at the same time, Eye somehow manages to be neither.
The story involves a British surveillance agent, code-named "Eye" (Ewan McGregor), who mixes his personal life with his work in an unhealthy way. Eye’s wife has left him – he was too devoted to his work, we are told – and taken their daughter with her, leaving him to live as a semi-recluse. In the course of a routine investigation, Eye unexpectedly witnesses a brutal murder committed by Joanna Eris (Ashley Judd), a young woman who is more a mysterious blend of tics than she is a person. (She drinks only cognac, smokes only Gitanes.) Eye begins to follow the mystery woman around the country, and gradually he transfers his yearning for his lost daughter onto her. Unable to bring himself to apprehend her, he becomes something like her guardian angel, looking after her and even abetting her escapes from the law.
Eye is not the kinky sex thriller its TV ads make it out to be, but neither is it the Antonioniesque exploration of inner landscapes that it tries to be at its most pretentious. Despite the familiar neo-noir story line, Eye and Joanna have practically no contact until very late in the movie, so that most of the film consists of us watching Eye as he watches Joanna. Elliott compensates for the dramatic void with a resolutely artsy treatment, so that the movie abounds in eye-catching compositions and flashy set design. The switches between cities are accomplished by using those cheesy souvenir snow domes to announce the next location, and scenes are often linked by ingenious dissolves. Even if it never attains real lyricism, the movie does have a sleek fluidity.
But all of Elliott’s technique can’t hide the fact that Eye is filled with moments even the silkiest filmmaking could never save. The shot of Joanna bathed in the blood of one of her victims and hysterically bawling out "Merry Christmas, Daddy!" is puerile and loony at the same time. Elliott also isn’t above having someone drop a tray of dishes just to make us jump in our seats, or having the scuzzy dude who’s preparing to rape Joanna (Jason Priestley in a dye job) lick a hypodermic needle with villainous anticipation. Touches like these put the lie to the tasteful glossiness hanging over the rest of the picture.
Ashley Judd is all wrong for the part of Joanna. Joanna is a woman whose shell is peeled away in layers, revealing what is supposed to be an agonized soul that can only express itself through mayhem. But throughout the movie Judd seems at a loss for any way to convey Joanna’s enigmatic nature except by erasing any detectable emotion from her face. And now that her Southern accent has been trained out of her, she has a voice that isn’t distinct in any way – it’s as flat as her performance.
But Ewan McGregor is a different story. For extended stretches he has no dialogue and he’s often immobile during the film, sitting in his car or in a church belfry (don’t ask) as he spies on Joanna. Physically McGregor appears poised on some weird seam between youth and maturity, but he has a fully rounded screen presence and his face is expressive enough that you don’t get tired of looking at it – new emotions keep drifting up out of the deep.
Eye of the Beholder is a portmanteau movie crammed to bursting with references to other films and filmmakers. It has Nicolas Roeg’s dreamy projection of mental states and a Hitchcockian suspense scene set in a diner, and there are not so veiled references to The Conversation, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Vertigo, Until the End of the World, and a handful of other movies. Elliott even dedicates his movie to seven filmmakers who inspired him, ranging from Tex Avery to Federico Fellini. But Eye’s presiding spirit is really Brian De Palma, the De Palma who sacrifices sense to sensation, who is equally titillated by gimmicky computers and tawdry voyeurism, and who populates his dramas with one-dimensional mannequins.
It’s one thing for a filmmaker to allude to a previous work because it enlivens his own vision in some way, as when Schrader and Scorsese relied on John Wayne’s subverted brand of heroics in The Searchers to provide a larger cultural context for the bloodbath that concludes Taxi Driver. But today’s directors fill their movies with references to other flicks, and dress them up with other artful touches, just because they think it gives their movies a kick. They don’t realize that the Cinema of the In-Joke diminishes their work and turns it into a stoner’s version of Trivial Pursuit; they don’t see how it keeps their imaginations earthbound.
– Tom Block