EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: Neo-noir, near enough a bore (2000 in Film #4)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, I’m looking at Stephan Elliot’s oddball thriller Eye of the Beholder

Eye of the Beholder will possibly go down in cinema history for the dubious honour of being the first movie to be graded F via the Cinema Score ranking system.

Established in 1979, Cinema Score is a market research firm based in Las Vegas who survey film audiences to rate their viewing experiences with letter grades, report the results, and forecast box office receipts based on the data. In 2017, Kevin Lincoln for Vulture, in the wake of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! being added to this negatively auspicious list, brought to light the 19 films since 1999 that rest in a category of, technically based on audience responses, the absolute worst of the worst, suggesting that a common denominator was the failed auteur project and many of the entries—films such as Mother! or Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris or Andrew Dominik’s Killing Me Softly—got an unfair shake. For pictures such as those, it’s true. There is no way they should be on a list like this.

Eye of the Beholder is not one of those films.

Directed by Stephan Elliott, an Australian helmsman principally known for 1994’s quirky The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Eye of the Beholder is an abject failure from start to finish in almost every single respect.

Ostensibly it operates as a neo-noir tale of murder and subterfuge, if not outfight espionage, with Ewan McGregor’s British spy Steve Wilson aka ‘The Eye’ who is dispatched by his handler, the bafflingly cast K. D. Lang (who seems to operate out of some kind of Gilliamesque retro-future library), to track down the socialite son of his spy boss, only to watch the man be murdered by Ashley Judd’s sultry, psychotic man-killer Joanna Eris. What follows is ninety minutes of a fairly pervy McGregor following Joanna across the United States, covertly watching her murder a succession of guys (often in a state of undress), all the while being haunted by the visage of his absent daughter, who serves as an element of Steve’s conscience (before the story entirely forgets about her altogether). On paper, it sounds strange and potentially compelling, but in reality Elliott delivers a muddled, thematically inconsistent, often downright confusing and cheaply made erotic thriller which isn’t even fit to lick Shannon Tweed’s Channel 5 boots.

McGregor at this point was in the throes of a fairly erratic career after breaking out in Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave and particularly Trainspotting; his previous film portraying a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace sent him stratospheric at the very end of a largely successful 90’s, but for every Little Voice there tended to be A Life Less Ordinary (his third and much less successful collaboration with Boyle) waiting in the wings.

Similarly, you can point to Ashley Judd as one of those actors who should have ended up a megastar but, following a memorable start guest starring on Star Trek: The Next Generation and a few key major roles in films such as Kiss the Girls and A Time to Kill during the 90’s, never managed to align herself with the Nicole Kidman’s or Reese Witherspoon’s who have endured with age as A-list Hollywood stars. This is perhaps because neither McGregor nor Judd quite fit the clean, wholesome template of the traditional leading man or woman; they have the looks and the ability, but there is an edge to both, an uncharacteristic darkness, which has imposed itself on their careers.

For that reason you can see why a project such as Eye of the Beholder might have appealed to them, given Elliott to his credit does attempt to add a level of magical realism to proceedings in his adaptation of Marc Behm’s novel of the same name, and to a degree a remake of the 1983 Isabelle Adjani-starring French thriller Deadly Circuit from Claude Miller. Magical realism, as a theory, is likened to surrealism but concerns more practical real world concepts as opposed to abstract concerns.

In the context of cinema, it can operate simply as a clouded point of view, that of perhaps a child, through which events and situations are seen through a distorted, sometimes hyper-real lens. Terry Gilliam was referred to earlier and is clearly a touchstone for Elliott, indeed in places there is a touch of Twelve Monkeys in his film, a movie which certainly contains aspects of magical realism. Eye of the Beholder fits into this theory in how Steve has entire conversations with his daughter while she actively appears to intrude on real-world scenes he is surveilling. She imprints himself on the life he is living.

Elliott’s film is also timely placed to reflect the growing anxieties at the turn of the millennium on incumbent information technology. Steve does not fit the traditional template of a spy, lacking the accoutrements a James Bond, for instance, might contain while tracking a suspect – he is deliberately more like a PI in many ways, indeed even Lang’s handler Hilary refers to him (oddly) as ‘detective’. If he’s supposed to be a dishevelled gumshoe, a la Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, then Judd’s Joanna is most certainly the femme fatale (literally) from a bygone age. Eye of the Beholder on more than one occasion seeks to evoke these stylistic touches, with Joanna killing on a glamorous passenger train or in plush hotel rooms, all the while running away from the secrets of her own past. Steve’s obsession becomes more entwined with Joanna’s murderous compulsion – in that sense he recalls Dana Andrews’ detective in Otto Preminger’s Laura, allowing his fascination with the beautiful suspect cloud his vision.

Steve talks about how he lost his family because of technology: “My wife was right. I spent my whole life hiding behind computer screens, and it cost me my daughter. But it’s time to let go because… because I met an extraordinary woman and she needs my help. I won’t make the same mistake twice”. The problem is that Elliott’s film struggles to reconcile this anxiety about technological dominance over the personal life with a clear, thematic or dramatic arc for Steve, or indeed Joanna. It seems more interested in the construction of modern noir, of stylistic touches, of trying to immerse the audience in this magically realistic world where scene transitions happen through snow globes, than fully providing a narrative which is clear and makes sense. What could have been strange, haunting, sexually exciting and thrilling simply ends up puzzling and offbeat, without the humour or absurdist vision to deliver anything memorable.

Elliott subsequently hasn’t made anything of particular note, indeed it took him nearly a decade after the box office bomb that was Eye of the Beholder to make his next feature, Easy Virtue, and Judd herself never really hit the leading women heyday she enjoyed in the 90’s (there are other, more disturbing reasons for this), which leaves McGregor as the only talent who largely came out the other side of this misfire unscathed. Looking back, one might be tempted to wonder if Eye of the Beholder, produced at the tail end of a decade in which the dark erotic thriller was king, might deserve some level of reappreciation. It is at least unusual, often not giving into the traditional tropes and visuals of more standard Hollywood fare, but it is too unfocused, too bland and honestly not surreal or strange *enough* to warrant more discussion.

We will look at the other Cinema Score F grade movie of 2000 later in the year but you’ll be hard pressed to find a piece of modern noir that works less well than Eye of the Beholder. I invite you to try…

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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