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Saturday, March 18, 2000


Through the long lens of obsession

A rotten parent is as ecologically hazardous as toxic waste, says "Eye of the Beholder," a stylish film-noir heavy on the Freudian psychology. Written and directed by Stephan Elliott ("The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"), this was apparently a vehicle that so captured the heart of Ashley Judd, she snowed him with phone calls and letters for weeks until he finally said yes.

Ah, to be a director and to have Ashley on the line, or better still, on one's answering machine: "Hi . . . (in her lovely southern drawl) I think we should meet for lunch and discuss the finer points of this character."

It's easy to see what enamored her. "Eye of the Beholder" is an actress' dream come true in which she gets to play little girl, femme fatale, madonna, teenage delinquent and serial killer, all in the space of an hour and 45 minutes. Plus, she smokes Gitanes and drinks cognac, and appears in an array of gorgeous Valentino outfits. Surely, parts like this don't turn up everyday.

Judd plays Joanna, a mysterious babe in a mink coat who goes by half a dozen aliases and owns more wigs than Bloomingdales. Joanna shows up one day in the lens of "Lucky Legs" (Ewan McGregor), a secret agent of the British Embassy. Lucky is a recluse and a loner, avoided by his coworkers with the exception of sympathetic boss Hilary (k.d. lang).

He has been this way for the past seven years, ever since his wife and daughter disappeared. Lucky knows he is to blame. When they were around he was always too busy to pay much attention.

Therefore he is in a suitable mind frame to become interested, then fatally attracted to Joanna, who spends her days meeting men and killing them off. Rather than turn her in, Lucky continues to observe and follow, occasionally stepping in to help out when she's in danger but discreetly and from afar.

The change comes when Joanna finds true love in an older blind man (Patrick Bergin), who pledges his eternal love and proposes. Desperate to keep her in his vision, Lucky engineers a car accident to get rid of his rival. Dazed with sorrow, Joanna hits the road once more with Lucky close on her heels.

Lucky's obsession with Joanna is entrenched in the loss of his daughter and Joanna's male-hate tendencies are a direct result of being abandoned by her father at the age of 9. Both these people were disappointed and damaged by fatherhood, but rather than bond them together, Elliott chooses downright alienation. Joanna doesn't even see Lucky until the last 10 minutes and when she does, the story is already winding down toward the inevitable tragic ending.

True to Elliott's style, the film is also a visual treat with details inspired by the great Hollywood classics. The scene where Joanna is on a train to Pittsburgh is tinged with a '40s Hitchcockian ambience; when she's working as a waitress in an Alaskan diner, it's "Giant" all over again. And we also get to see Elliott's snow-dome collection, a crucial prop in describing the mind scape of the two central characters.

But Elliott is too shrewd to paint the whole film over in sepia-colored elegance. The dissenting note is Lucky, who sticks out like a sore thumb in a red nylon parka (Elliott's personal possession) and woolen vest, his whole ensemble screaming Woolworth's boys section. Not even the faintest trace of James Bond anywhere.

In contrast to the rest of the film, Lucky is distinctly digital. The tools of his trade are all high-powered, micro-fibered gadgets that hook up to his computer for immediate analysis. This is a spy whose job consists solely of watching, then recording, then watching some more. No conversations, no mingling, definitely no grappling with the bad guys on a precipice or something. No wonder his wife and kid picked up and left.

Having said so, this is Judd's film all the way.We become hostages to her charms, much in the same way as Lucky. Judd has rapidly become a name to be reckoned with, muscling into the place just vacated by Sharon Stone. She's of a similar caliber: a rare combination of bossiness, brassiness and girlish sexuality. See "Eye of the Beholder" for further confirmation.

"Eye of the Beholder" is playing at Marunouchi Piccadilly 2 and other theaters.

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