Eye of the Beholder

(Stephan Elliott, USA, 2000)


In ten or fifteen years time, will film students regard Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, 1995) as an ambitious entertainer who fought his way up to the level of professional respect accorded Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford – or just another Yahoo Serious?

In interviews, as well as in the revealing documentary Killing Priscilla (2000), Elliott stated repeatedly that his fourth feature, Eye of the Beholder, is three things: weird, dark and grown-up. This hip code can be easily broken down and translated: it means that, at last, he is tackling drama rather than comedy. But his choice of dramatic vehicle is extremely generic and still exhibits an unmistakably arrested development.

If there is anything that marks Elliott as an auteur beyond the brashness of his self-presentation, it is the veritable obsession with themes of social constriction and wild escape that we find in all his films.

Joanna (Ashley Judd) in Eye of the Beholder is not so far removed from the drag queens in Priscilla or the luckless American trapped in the ‘dead heart’ in the underrated Welcome to Woop Woop (1998); like them all, she is a shape-shifting chameleon, a gambler who plays with high and dangerous stakes – in this case, sex and violence – in order to make a dash for freedom.

Much of the film plays like an elaborate homage to the entire erotic thriller genre in both its high-art and low-exploitation modes. So Joanna changes her swish look with each new scene, as The Eye (Ewan McGregor) tracks her, from a distance, with ever more elaborate surveillance equipment. He starts out as a lawman, but quickly becomes an obsessed, melancholic voyeur.

To fill out this rather repetitive scenario, a parade of grotesquely histrionic character actors including Patrick Bergin and Jason Priestley – mostly known these days for their work in video-only B movies – twitch their way through one-dimensional cameos. Genevieve Bujold, as a psychiatrist, provides morbid intimations of a perverse, childhood backstory for Joanna. A possibility of romance – or at least, some soulful, mystical connection between pursuer and prey – hangs like a grey cloud over the action.

Elliott does not so much pay homage to Hitchcock in all this as dutifully extend and rehash the past thirty years of Hitchcockian pastiches by Brian De Palma (Dressed To Kill, 1980), Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, 1992), Richard Rush (Color of Night, 1994) and even Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colours: White, 1994). The film’s climactic, and best, moment – involving a silent, secretive gesture in a tense situation – is more or less lifted straight from Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), Judd included.

Elliott likes to declare his debt to not only the masters of the action-mystery-thriller, but also those wizards of the fantastic and the surreal: animators such as Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, or operatic visionaries like Fellini. Eye of the Beholder, sadly, displays none of the élan or drive of its impeccably tasteful influences.

Eye of the Beholder is, finally, less than the sum of its parts. Although it offers a ceaseless blizzard of stylistic tricks, nothing flows or builds. Elliott’s script (adapted from Marc Behm’s novel) is a rickety, gimcrack construction: the ghostly presence of Eye’s child, for instance, disappears from the story as abruptly as it appears, and seems motivated mainly by a desperate need to clarify murky plot moves. An elaborate motif – snowdome landscapes of American cities morphing into their real counterparts – has no discernible point other than to show off digital technology.

Elliott perhaps intended to make something which could work both as an art film and a proudly trashy, sensationalist genre piece. It is an ambition I admire. However, as Quentin Tarantino well realised, if you want a cult success, you have to give a primed audience hooks – lines, songs, clinches, bits of business – that they can take away afterwards.

Eye of the Beholder, for all its loud, flashy effort, scarcely manages to craft a single, memorable scene.

© Adrian Martin August 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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