Eye of the Beholder (R)
When he read Marc Behm's noir novel, Eye of the Beholder, and decided to turn it into a film, director Stephan Elliott (Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) was struck by the extremes and inspired by the possibility of "exploring love from a highly unconventional angle."
"It was the first time I could remember ever caring deeply about a murderer," said the director in the press notes. "It's a story that completely spins you around."
Eye of the Beholder turns the private-eye story on its head by allowing the protagonist, a special agent called The Eye, played in the film by Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting), to fall in love and gradually become obsessed with the woman he's tracking across America. Ashley Judd (Double Jeopardy) plays Joanna Eris, the object of The Eye's attraction, a woman suspected of blackmailing the son of a senior British official. But Eris turns out to be far more dangerous than a mere blackmailer -- she's a deranged murderess who seduces wealthy men, kills them, takes on a new identity, then moves on to a new town and new prey.
Complicating the dynamic between The Eye and Joanna, the hunter and the hunted, is The Eye's loss, seven years before, of his little girl, and Joanna's abandonment by her father on the streets of Salt Lake City when she was just nine years old. He is a father crippled by the loss of his daughter; she's a daughter crippled by the loss of her father. As depicted by Elliott, they are simpatico -- lost souls united by their mutual losses.
If this sounds like a fascinating premise, it is. And in the hands of a director who might have played his cards closer, opting for subtlety over flashy style, it might have worked. But Elliott films it like a purple Fellini-esque mad chase across America, weighing down the film with precious images (every scene is set up by a shot of a snow globe, announcing where we have landed), an operatic tone and, basically, just too much visual heavy-handedness.
Elliott loves the murderess so much, apparently, that, in his screen adaptation, he doesn't feel compelled to give her any depth, just to make her astonishingly beautiful in her ever-changing wigs, white lingerie and mink. The Eye first falls for Joanna when he takes a surveillance photo of her that recalls the image of his lost little girl. But the next time he sees her -- and we are to accept that he falls in love with her after this -- she stabs the guy she's sharing cocktails with about 40 times, then collapses to the floor smearing his blood all over herself while shrieking and bawling: "Merry Christmas, Daddy... Merry Christmas, Daddy..." I kid you not.
Even that little piece of histrionic bloodletting might be overlooked if, as the film progressed, more of Joanna was revealed to us. But, as played by Judd and written by Elliott, when she sheds her skin what is revealed is not another layer of complexity, but just another costume. Eventually she does fall in love with one of the men she stalks -- a blind man chosen because he can't see who she really is -- but he is killed in an unfortunate and completely unbelievable accident and she, for a short time, becomes the martyr. First she loses their baby in a creepy Midwestern hospital, then is stalked by a wasted sleazebag (Jason Priestley with a bleached, spiky buzz hair-do), and eventually she is saved by The Eye from the cops who are hot on her trail.
Judd maintains a grim, vacuous grief and unchanging facial expression throughout the film. Her husky voice is seductive but monotonous.
McGregor fares better, partly because Elliott enhances his character with a fascinating array of high-tech surveillance devices. We are convinced that he is a hard-core techie addicted to the computer screen and that his wife and daughter could have left him because of his benign neglect. And his physical presence -- he hovers somewhere between pimply youth and full-blown maturity -- adds to the sense of his vulnerability in the face of a devastatingly beautiful woman.
Only one of the many over-the-top scenes in Eye of the Beholder worked for me, the one where McGregor stands against the wall of his hotel bathroom that is shared with Joanna's next door. As she bathes, and presumably masturbates while singing the song her daddy used to sing to her ("I Wish You Love"), he runs his hands against the cold tile. The soundtrack blasts a terrific Chrissie Hynde version of the song, backed by the London Symphony Orchestra. It's hot.
But ultimately, after the final chase scene has skidded off the sides of a frozen Alaska highway, Eye of the Beholder left me cold. The Eye relinquishes everything for an irretrievable psychopath, and Joanna, meanwhile, is transformed only to the degree that she is no longer a glam queen but a drab waitress. I was left trying to recall some of the striking camera angles that dazzled me in the first hour of the film, but they were lost in the impenetrable fog of the story which turned out to be one long road trip to hell.