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September 2011

Julia's Eyes

cast: Belén Rueda, Lluís Homar, Pablo Derqui, Francesc Orella, and Daniel Grao

director: Guillem Morales

108 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum DVD Region 2
[released 12 September]

RATING: 5/10
review by Niall Alexander

Julia's Eyes

Julia's Eyes might have seemed a marvellous film 50 years ago, but today it feels obvious, ineffectual, and truly, madly, deeply outmoded. Writer and director Guillem Morales earned himself a modest cult following with his 2004 effort, The Uninvited Guest, and he returns, perhaps unwisely, to many of the themes set out therein, in this stylish but sadly insubstantial tale of twin sisters with identical degenerative eye conditions. The sisters have been out of touch for months, as one worsens and the other stubbornly does everything she can to distance herself from the fate they share, but when, in the opening scene, Sara is promptly killed by a man who seems to melt into the shadows, Julia and her haughty husband Ivan are called in to set Sara's affairs in order, and made to face facts.

Par for the course, the police make a show of doing due diligence before declaring Sara's death a suicide, but Julia is convinced there's more to her sister's unhappy ending than it appears. First and foremost, she left no note, and in the days after her death various acquaintances come out of the neighbourhood woodwork to reveal tight-fisted titbits of information about Sara's last days: she was, for instance, seen with a man... though no-one can recall what the man looked like, exactly, or even if he existed at all. Could he have been her lover, Julia wonders? Or was he her killer?

Ever-so-briefly, Julia's Eyes begins a promising thing. Sara's death makes for a reasonably creepy cold beginning, and the situation established thereafter - of the estranged sister rooting out the truth before lightning strikes twice, as in cinema lightning is wont to do - seems, if a little familiar, then nevertheless the stage is set for a few hours of flashy, foreboding fun.

But no; Morales, a self-serious director at the best of times, opts instead for 40 minutes of irritable bloody bickering, as Julia and Ivan hee and haw at one another about everything but the girl - the dead one, remember? - while what enthusiasm one might have mustered up as of the outset trickles away, grain by grain, like sand through an hourglass. And it gets worse before it gets better. Smack bang in the middle of the film, there is - wait for it... - a montage.

I kid you not. A montage... set to inspiring montage music... in a horror film... made in 2010. A horror film made, moreover, by some of the most notable names from among international cinema's crop of genetically-modified genre talent: namely producer Guillermo del Toro, who has of late made an enterprise of lending his artistic credibility to films which would likely be little-seen otherwise, among them Splice, Biutiful, and The Orphanage. That's a fair track record for the dastardly mastermind behind Pan's Labyrinth, then, for Julia's Eyes to sully with its solemn silliness.

Julia's Eyes also works to taint the reputation of another party as closely associated with the success of The Orphanage, as del Toro himself, for there is Belén Rueda to consider in addition, as both Sara and Julia. Last the lead of J.A. Bayona's extraordinary debut, Rueda's performance in Julia's Eyes begins on the very verge of hysteria, from where there's nowhere to go - or at least nowhere she goes - but down from that lamentable low. Sure enough, she screams and cries with the best of them, yet there seems little depth to her mania and, in any case, the overbearing script is manifestly uninterested in such balance or emotional diversity.

These happy inheritances, then, seem, in short, a con. So too does the ungracious implication of some sort of supernatural goings-on - goings-on the film seems on one hand to support, and on the other utterly rebuke - which amount to nothing more meaningful than a blind alley, for Julia's Eyes is, in the end, more Single White Female than The Orphanage. Nonetheless, Morales is all too happy to play to the inverse expectation, and that would have been perfectly acceptable if he'd cared to take any of these threads seriously after he'd had his fun with them... except that there's no payoff at all. Not to that dangling digression; nor ultimately does Morales offer much in the way of resolution to the myriad other elements of this misguided muddle.

Julia's Eyes is not a terrible film from beginning to end, however... though both ends are, admittedly, pretty terrible. Oddly, Morales' latest is slightly redeemed by the second act, because sandwiched between the hollow squabbling of the soul-sucking first third of Julia's Eyes and the cod-Hitchcockian drivel of the finale, there exists half an hour of middling to terrific tension; beginning, in fact, the moment that ghastly aforementioned montage comes to a close. Ivan the terrible has by this stage receded in the rear-view, there has been confirmation, long overdue, of the suspiciousness of Sara's so-called suicide, and Julia's optic complications have worsened to the point that she is practically blind. We, then, see as she sees, in a sense.

Some critics have described this part of the picture as 'virtuoso', 'masterful', and other such pronouncements. I would not go so far. The way in which Morales communicates Julia's condition is indeed interesting; compelling, even - loathe though I am to use such a tired descriptor, it fits. And perhaps it is doubly unkind of me to liken this technique to that made such memorable use of in farcical films along the lines of Austin Powers, but I could think of little else. To wit: remember that scene in the sequel when our international man of mystery is naked as a babe, but some chance object or angle always obscures that which we the viewer must not see? Well, it's a lot like that. But small mercies: at least in Julia's Eyes the hidden thing is not a penis...

It's all rather ridiculous, needless to say, but unlike so much of Morales' movie, it proves effective enough to momentarily distract one from the innumerable other absurdities in play. And that right there is the problem with Julia's Eyes: it is, at heart, a daft little horror film - proficiently executed on a technical level, from set dressing through effects by way of Fernando Velázquez's throwback Psycho score and Óscar Faura's exceptional cinematography, but narratively it is no more and no less than a nonsense - if not an utter nothing. Mistakenly, Morales approaches the film's story with such po-facedness as to render this ridiculous thing conspicuously ignorant of its own ridiculousness. He seems to think his themes far-reaching and his characters sincerely meaningful when they are in reality no more than cyphers, to a one; and how gripping his script?

I'll tell you: not... one... whit. Only in its moderately powerful middle third is Julia's Eyes even passing tense or atmospheric. In the erstwhile, it is limp, insubstantial, vastly overlong, and as obtuse as the revelation Morales attempts to pass off as a twist, come the dreadful dénouement, which only serves to underscore what an almighty waste of time Julia's Eyes is.

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