Surveillance is the perfect activity for someone like a British intelligence agent code-named Eye (Ewan McGregor). A recluse and voyeur, he likes to watch. By making the action of Eye of the Beholder unravel under Eye’s unwavering gaze, writer-director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) has both fetishized and eroticized surveillance as the ultimate intimate encounter.
For the Eye, this job (a combination of Peeping Tom and private dick) is a way to distance himself from the uncomfortable uncertainty of everyday life. After his wife leaves him, taking their young daughter with her, he grows increasingly isolated, communicating even with his government contact, Hilary (k.d. lang), primarily via a video-computer hook-up.
He receives a routine assignment – to follow the wayward son of an embassy official – and stumbles upon Joanna Eris (Ashley Judd), a femme fatale as performance artist. The Eye soon has more than enough material to have her arrested for a series of murders, but chooses a different route.
Within this brazen and forceful woman, who adopts a new personality as frequently as she dons a different wig, he sees someone vulnerable, someone who could use a guardian angel. That’s what the Eye becomes, trailing her as she criss-crosses the country, passively watching and only interceding when a bleached-blonde predator (Jason Priestley) attacks or a blind vintner (Patrick Bergin) proposes marriage.
Based on a 1980 novel by Marc Behm, Eye of the Beholder uses elements of film noir (stylistic as well as thematic) to explore the bizarrely symbiotic relationship between two lost souls struggling to connect. In city after city, through identity after identity, the Eye pursues Joanna, but hesitates to reveal himself.
Eye of the Beholder is a whirlwind of hypnotic imagery, yet it never quite finds the necessary emotional undercurrent. The always compelling Geneviève Bujold shows up briefly as Joanna’s twisted mentor, but even that relationship isn’t explored enough to have a real impact.
Stephan Elliott wants his characters’ journey to be internal as well as external, but he utilizes psychobabble about abandonment instead of providing any real insight into these two tormented ciphers. The Eye and Joanna may be constantly in motion, yet essentially they remain at a standstill.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].