Eye of the Beholder (1999)

By Adam Lippe

Comedian David Cross does a bit on his It’s Not Funny album about how common it is to see a gay couple who look exactly like one another, “same balding pattern, bushy mustache, reverse pear-shaped body.” He goes into more detail exploring how that must be sort of like masturbation, where you can either take out your frustration or your joy on your partner and it’s kind of like talking to yourself.

Was that the idea behind Stephan Elliott’s Eye of the Beholder? Nominally, the film is an incoherent thriller about a nameless detective, played by Ewan McGregor, working for some sort of government spying agency, becoming obsessed with a female serial killer, played by Ashley Judd. But with the repeated scenes of McGregor hallucinating that he’s talking to his young daughter, who was absconded by his wife when she left him for being too focused on his job, there’s another layer of confused self-examination going on.

McGregor knows his hallucinations aren’t real, and his only connection to the real world is his Girl Friday, an operator for the clandestine agency, played by singer k.d. Lang. Constantly covering for McGregor as he goes completely AWOL and abandons his work to follow Judd, the most interesting thing about Lang’s character is not that she’s played a famous musician, but that we’ve entered Moment by Moment territory, and she looks exactly like McGregor.

Outfitted in an unintentional Santa jacket, McGregor is hidden behind a series of terrible wigs, which probably added to his discomfort playing a thoroughly confusing character. Elliott makes no mention of Lang and McGregor’s visual similarity on the director’s commentary (though he does talk about the wigs and how ugly that jacket is), nor how they might be two sides of the same coin, one stable and focused, the other aimless and risk taking.

Elliott’s talk is more concerned with the difficulty of getting such an amoral film financed, McGregor protects Judd from being found out and seems content watching her kill one man after another. There’s nothing about the fact that Eye of the Beholder might be an elaborate fantasy of a deluded schizophrenic, which might excuse such problems like the fact that McGregor is pretty bad at being inconspicuous, no matter who is chasing him, and he seems to have bugged the entire world, having cameras and audio planted in every new location that Judd finds herself in. And we’re not talking one or two places, the film is a road movie (like Elliott’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), going from city to city and eventually ending up in Alaska.

This turns Eye of the Beholder into more of an elaborate chase film, but with the pursuer having no intention of ever actually interacting with his subject. It adds to the feeling of wooziness and almost excuses that the film really has no beginning, middle, or end. There are so many logical fallacies throughout, such as why does a child beggar have braces (unless someone dropped a gift certificate to an orthodontist in her change cup), that to turn the movie into a paranoid fantasy would be the best way to excuse it.

That’s not to say that Elliott has made a boring film; Eye of the Beholder has good production values, fancy look-at-me camerawork, and a performance by Genevieve Bujold, playing the matron of the orphanage where Judd spent her youth, which is fantastically terrible. Bujold seems to be doing an impression of one of Judy Davis’ patented cold fish roles (Naked Lunch, Barton Fink, The New Age). Bujold also sports an awful wig, but this time it is intentional, as its meant to show the audience why Judd has a collection of bad wigs (if the movie were any more of an absurd comedy sketch, it would be called The Ministry of Silly Wigs). And I haven’t even included Jason Priestley’s character, in which he’s deliberately cast against type as a bleached blond junkie who tries to abduct Judd, which is one of those consciously ridiculous roles, completed by the image of a syringe in a dartboard.

While all of these bizarre false notes explain why Elliott, who claims to have bankrupted himself financing the film, virtually disappeared off the feature film map for ten years (until 2008’s Easy Virtue), it doesn’t mean his demotion was fair. The sound design, which often sounds like a fax machine on the blink, is creative, and the refusal to play as anything other than a violent travelogue is unique for a film that received a wide release. That wide release is probably the reason for the oversimplification of Judd’s character (and her cringeworthy dialogue, “I’m full as a bull, old timer”); she hates men because her homeless dad walked out on her as a child. But you’re unlikely to see a scene as weird as the one where McGregor beats up Judd’s blind fiancée, as a way to warn him that she’ll kill him. That seems counter-intuitive, but nothing in Eye of the Beholder reeks of anything near the notion of insight or intuition.

1 comment on “Eye of the Beholder (1999)”

  1. Thanks.

    Probably as much of an explanation as I’ll ever get of this odd movie.

    Judd is very eerie to watch in this, also McGregor. One of those really strange movies someone will rediscover fifty years from now and call a lost classic because… I don’t know, it just has that vibe.

    Maybe because it took me 15 years to get around to seeing it, I don’t know. But it really is surreal.

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On Cold Fish:

Though the 16 year old me described the 1994 weepie Angie, starring Geena Davis as a Brooklyn mother raising her new baby alone, as “maudlin and melodramatic,” Roger Ebert, during his TV review, referring to the multitude of soap-operaish problems piling up on the titular character, suggested that it was only in Hollywood where Angie would get a happy ending. “If they made this movie in France, Angie would have shot herself.”

Well Cold Fish was made in Japan, where Angie would have shot herself and that would have been the happy ending.