Eye of the Beholder

Peeping has always been part of the guilty pleasure of moviegoing. We look; they can't look back. Voyeur is the fancy term for what Webster's defines as a person who is sexually gratified by viewing, especially furtively and habitually, persons who are disrobing, engaged in sexual activity, etc. Perverse? Nah. It sounds like the usual crowd at the multiplex. But the best filmmakers know there's more to peeping than sex. Real intimacy comes in watching a person let down his defenses.

Eye of the Beholder, adapted by director Stephan Elliott from Marc Behm's 1980 novel, Ewan McGregor plays the Eye, a British intelligence agent who's paid to peep. Availed of the latest in surveillance toys, the Eye is assigned to track Joanna Eris (Ashley Judd), a suspected blackmailer. He records Joanna in the act of taking off her clothes, bathing, having sex and — oh, yeah — killing about a half-dozen guys. While the Eye stays the impassive observer, Joanna stabs one lover repeatedly, wraps his bloody body in a sheet, drops him in a river and coolly tidies up the mess. Then it's on the road from New York to Alaska as Joanna changes wigs and identities in her busy secret life as a serial killer.

Judd is a firecracker of an actress, able to find layers in a woman who's more of a concept than a character. Good thing, too, because Elliott — the Australian director of the 1994 drag comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — lets his artier ideas get the better of him. It's one thing to draw us into the surreal world of the Eye's emotional impassivity; it's another to degenerate into psychobabble. Joanna's case history is spelled out: She's an orphan who grew up to be victimized by men (wait till you see Jason Priestley as a bleached-out, sadistic junkie drifter) and even doctors (Genevieve Bujold scores as a manipulative shrink). No wonder Joanna lashes out. Elliott sees this sociopath as an abandoned innocent in need of a cuddle. Judd, often trapped in pop trash (Double Jeopardy, Kiss the Girls) while her fine work in indie films (Ruby in Paradise, Normal Life) goes unseen, works hard to reconcile the contradictions in Joanna, but it's an uphill battle.

McGregor, the Scottish actor (Trainspotting) who plays the young Obi-Wan in the new Star Wars series, has it worse. In the book, the Eye is a much older man whose wife ran off with their daughter. Unable to find his now-adult child, the Eye sees Joanna as a substitute and becomes her guardian angel. The French director Claude Miller filmed Behm's novel in 1983 as Deadly Run, with the fiftyish Michel Serrault as the Eye and Isabelle Adjani as Joanna. McGregor, 29, is miscast in a role that makes little sense even on a Freudian level. He fares better with the quick-witted k.d. lang, playing an intelligence coordinator and the last link to reality for a voyeur who's nuttier than the psycho he's watching. In trying to both inflame and indict our morbid curiosity, Elliott fails to make the needed connection between the audience and a peeper who has lost his moral balance.

From The Archives Issue 834: February 17, 2000