Guillern Morales‘s 2010 horror/mystery/thriller hybrid, Julia’s Eyes, is a competently composed and executed work, drawing on Hitchcock, Wait Until Dark, and Val Lewton & Mark Robson’s underappreciated marvel The Seventh Victim. Julia’s Eyes nicely merges classical narrative and visual styles with a contemporary sensibility. In other hands such conscious appropriation of landmark films would come off far more derivative than this does. The film appears to work well, despite shortcomings in characterization, being a bit too long, and–most importantly–a clunky, overly-sentimental finish that kills the narrative and emotional power and relegates our central character, Julia, played marvelously by Belén Rueda to second-fiddle status that runs contrary to the film’s thematic propulsion. Julia’s Eyes could have been first-rate, updating some genre conventions and cultural notions of gender roles and female empowerment, but got frightened by its own assertiveness, and instead cowered back into a tired, subservient space that undermines the entire film.
The premise is intriguing: Julia’s sister Sara (also played by Rueda) has a degenerative eye condition, and is now clinically blind. She is then found dead, in what looks like a suicide, but the audience knows otherwise–“there was a third man!” So immediately we have our Hitchcockian suspense à la Shadow of a Doubt and Dial M for Murder, as well as our Wait Until Dark blind and vulnerable female protagonist, with loose ties to The Seventh Victim through mysterious deaths and suicide. Despite the evidence and every man around her saying otherwise, Julia doesn’t believe her sister killed herself and we know she’s right. So everyone around Julia is now suspect–tension and distrust established. Through a series of twists and turns, wherein most characters are and aren’t who we thought, we’re dazzled by the effective shifts and reveals, staying on our toes and just out of our comfort zone. This is good genre work, a well-wrought yarn.
Adding to the tension, Julia has the same degenerative eye condition as Sara, where overexertion and stress can cause permanent blindness. Her overly-protective husband, Isaac (Lluís Homar), keeps dissuading Julia from her investigation. While acknowledging his controlling over-protectiveness, Isaac claims to be looking out for Julia’s well-being. Unfortunately, this love and care mostly just comes off as overbearing sexist chauvinism, with healthy dashes of suspicious about his motives. So the film and audience stays firmly in Julia’s corner, rooting for her to expose the shadowy killer, avenge her sister’s murder, and also prove to the dudes around her that she was right and fully capable, no thanks to them. Confirming some of our suspicions, Isaac hasn’t been entirely up front, and his explanation comes off as floundering nice guy garbage about protecting Julia. Such What Lies Beneath-level backsliding makes us distrust him even more. It’s a well-executed setup that speaks to the benevolent sexism within too many modern marriages. My wife and I were all on board.
What further strengthens this film and theme is Rueda’s confident and mostly believable performance. She runs the range of steely resolve, resourceful detective work, and vulnerable uncertainty and sadness. A classically well-wrought genre character. Where it suffers isn’t Rueda’s fault, but due to uneven and under-cooked characterization in the script, which direction and performance just can’t mask. Despite the tension and distrust we hold for Isaac, the film desperately tries to present their marriage as loving and healthy, which never quite passes.
By comparison, the marriage in J.A. Bayona‘s The Orphanage, which bears some character and relationship similarities, gives Laura (Rueda) and Carlos (Fernando Cayo) proper dimension. There she is also a determined mother with a skeptical, resistant husband. She’s determined to find their vanished son, while her husband wishes to move on with their lives, accepting their son lost and dead. The Orphanage offers light and strategically short but substantial characterization and articulation of their respective concerns and personalities which make both Laura and Carlos deeply sympathetic. Carlos’s grief and skepticism resonates, and we sympathize, but his position doesn’t supplant Rueda’s own determination to solve the mystery; this irreconcilable tension keeps us engaged by exposing important, relatable aspects of what it means to grieve and how, despite a couple’s best efforts to support each other in their sorrow, they inevitably must also travel part of that path alone. Your coping strategy might be fundamentally at odds with the strategy of your partner, which is really damn hard to reconcile when grieving the shared tragedy of losing your child.
The dynamic in Julia’s Eyes is different, because it’s Julia’s sister who’s dead, which distances Isaac from this tragedy. So it makes sense that he is not as devastated by Sara’s death and would more easily wish to ignore the sordid details of her death. However, how the script shapes his response falls uncomfortably flat. Isaac mostly tells us he cares, without it evidenced in his actions, which often suggest the opposite (and Julia knows it). Despite these benevolently condescending motives, the film wants us to believe Julia and Isaac intensely love each other, a hurdle Rueda and Homar never quite clear. It’s not their fault; like Jessica Rabbit, they’re just drawn that way. This shortcoming will become particularly problematic in the film’s conclusion, which I’ll address later.
Julia’s solitary truth quest is most interesting when the stress renders her, like Sara, blind. To recover her sight, she must undergo a transplant surgery, which can only succeed if she keeps her new eyes wrapped for several weeks. Through this middle section, the Hitchcockian cinematography uses medium and close-up shots of Julia’s bandaged face that keep her central, with all other characters faceless. Think about it: how much do we rely on looking at another’s face? and how distressing is it for the face to be just barely out of sight, over and over again. This effectively disconcerting technique connects audiences to Julia’s vulnerability, where potential threats could be everywhere and you can’t identify them and might even depend on them; the camera and her blindness as potent metaphor for the lurking and often daily threat of male violence against women.
For viewers, this section comforts and discomforts according to what we can and can’t see, creating a fascinating space where we get the thrill of suspense, complicated by that suspense feeding on a woman both possibly and actually being terrorized. And yet, we identify with that fear, reminded of just how dangerous the world around us can be, and how quickly our capacity to defend ourselves from those dangers can be compromised. Much of Julia’s earlier resolve and confidence is taken away, forcing her to adapt. And thankfully this classic mystery aesthetic has refined its representation of female vulnerability to better convey a woman’s experience, and I would assume that for women who’ve experienced male aggression, this entire sequence might sit distressingly close to home in a way male viewers, like myself, cannot understand. Julia’s fear that her killer could be by her at any moment becomes our own fear, for we don’t know who these people could be, especially not the in-home care nurse helping her daily. The spectacle of female victimization is not as perversely displayed here, and in many respects this is the quietest and tenses part of the entire film, which is book-ended by more familiar spikes and anxiously hysterical cinematic choices with sound, camera movement and performance. But in this sequence, the film shines brightest through controlled tension and deliberate choices that immerses us in the narrative while still consciously aware of our relationship to the film as a viewer, a very subtle bit of Brechtian boundary erosion.
When the big reveal comes, it too has a disarming quality that aids the film’s play with convention and comment on sexism in 2010, MRAs and internet beta-males. How the film anti-climactically reveals our shadow villain plays like in Panic Room, where there’s no mastermind Hannibal Lecter/Harry Powell super-villain, but instead a regular dumb guy, wanting to be more than he is. He’s the thriller version of Kylo Ren from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That moment when Kylo takes his mask off, serves a double function of (1) stepping out of the familiar genre convention of the masked Vader villain we’ve watch a thousand times, and (2) revealing that Kylo doesn’t actually need the mask, he just wore it because he’s a Darth Vader wannabe, desperate to look and walk hard, while being a self-declared faceless shadow (because he’s TOUGH, and also a persecuted man–fragile masculinity is SO HARD). Villains self-branding themselves as victim to justify their rotten actions (MRAs and alt-righters everywhere, I’m looking at you). They seem to misunderstand that Vader, like Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Immortan Joe, needs the mask because he’s physically ruined. It’s not fashion flair, but a lived necessity, which adds to their character in a way that makes the Tyler Durden dude bro posturing even more insulting and childish.
The anonymity of the internet makes shadows of us all, offering masks to hide ourselves. And we all do so. The problem is when we interpret that self-constructed anonymity as persecution from others. “They don’t see me!” “I’m so overlooked!” “Women, why don’t you see me?!” “I deserve to be seen!” (This is often code for “why won’t you sleep with me?”.) But also, don’t see me, because the shadow mask is my Power, and I then can prey upon you via gross manipulation and voyeurism. I’m really a psychotic abuser who thinks they’re a Nice Guy. But, hate to break it to you: you’re neither a nice guy nor a sophisticated super-villain. You’re just a pathetic dude on your basement computer sadistically stalking and trolling women you don’t know but want to control. You’re not cool. You never were cool. And no one owes you shit.
This is good social commentary, updating facets of Wait Until Dark and the satanist cult manipulating Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) in The Seventh Victim, to the present day, while never having any single moment quite as iconic as Wait Until Dark’s famous jump scare, or the devastating/liberating complexity of Seventh Victim‘s conclusion. Yet, like Wait Until Dark but unlike The Seventh Victim, Julia’s Eyes makes the horrid move to contain all this female empowerment. As the trope and life go, a dude has to manspread across the frame and smother our heroine. It’s painfully awkward, glaringly unconvincing, and absolutely unnecessary. This is where the film’s conclusion bottoms out. With aching desperation it insists Isaac was a good person, without ever showing us that he deserves to be so praised. Nothing is earned here, just like when men get mad that women don’t naturally flock to them and swallow everything they say and do.
Remember how Doctor Strange kept telling us Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange was good, but never showed us he was? Same problem. Why this matters? It hamstrings our emotional connection and sympathy, rendering the whole yarn a dull slog that all the visual fireworks in the world can’t make up for. There’s almost no visible proof Strange is a good person, only other characters saying he is. It’s the narrative equivalent of the business man saying “believe me! Take my word for it!” Uh, show me the receipts, dude. That audiences continually fall for this only speaks to the power of spectacle and performance, but distressingly reveals how easily suckered we are, and more distressingly how little we mind being suckered (2016 election anyone?). Morales seems to want Isaac’s goodness to be believed without proof, which, you know, sounds like pretty textbook male privilege.
Movies are amazingly good at persuading an audience while not really deserving it. Kind of how the magnificent cinematics of Stranger Things convinced us some of the very thin and tired characterization and motivations were in fact brilliant–nostalgia weaponized to validate latent biases. In Julia’s Eyes this shallow manipulation is the entire finish and it falls flatter than the psychologist explaining Norman Bates, or the unnecessary and patronizingly abusive moment in Wait Until Dark when Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) demands Susy (Audrey Hepburn)–who has just singularly prevailed in a horrendously traumatic experience of male aggression–prove her mettle to her husband, despite having already spent the entire movie showing that she is fully capable of taking care of herself. It’s patronizing, insulting, and sexist.
The closing scene of Julia’s Eyes buries the movie through grotesque male encroachment declaring Isaac the real hero. Rueda, bless her heart, gives it her all, imbuing lines with more convincing substance than they remotely deserve. But it’s not enough, and the finish had me choking up hairballs of disgust. My wife was understandably even more upset than me, which might only expose the gender disparity of experience. I can’t be as upset as her, because she’s the one who soaks this shit up everyday way more directly than I do. It’s especially bad in a film about how women are the fully capable protagonists of their own lives, and beta male dude bros are the worst. How insulting to, after all that skillful dismantling of gender inequality, we have to basically blurt “BUT NOT ALL MEN!!!” and push Julia down a step so her chauvinist husband can be saint and savior. I just threw up a little.
In a movie with so much working, it’s a shame that it so completely collapsed. Naturally we can always find flaws–there are no perfect movies (except Night of the Hunter). And if not flaws, then just different sensibilities and preferences that resonate with some and not others. Frequently, such incongruities and rough edges are as fascinating as the superbly executed/resonant moments. Flaws can enrich the personal connection, interpretive range and reciprocal application available to art. Take the commendable evolution of Star Trek: in each new iteration to boldly go where no one has gone before it continually revises itself to better realize its utopic vision of peace and equality. Often I can forgive a film its biggish missteps (I very much like Psycho and Wait Until Dark), find something redeeming about it or still consider the film, as a whole, a success and worth revisiting. But that can’t happen all the time. Sure, there’s racism lurking in numerous 1930s horror flicks, but The Mask of Fu Manchu is really racist, and Boris Karloff, the greatest human, can’t save it.
Sometimes shortcoming are so large you wonder whether the movie was any good to begin with–was the first half actually good, or did it sucker me? It suckered me a little, because, let’s be real, the budding romance between her and her nurse–so quick after Isaac’s own suspicious murder/suicide–is pretty shallow, out of character, and too long, with some spinning camera work and transforming set pieces that seem the blandest nod to Vertigo I’ve seen in some time. Why is this happening? What, did her womanly nerves get in the way of her sound judgment and the one-two punch of two dead loved ones? The things that seemed otherwise marvelous are starting to unravel. If you, like me, get suckered by the business bro sometimes, don’t feel too bad. The day comes to each of us to ask: has U2 sucked this whole time, or is it really just the post-Zooropa albums that get progressively worse with each release? Now I can’t tell if The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby are brilliant or the same inane posturing, but with better production and less unbearable Bono White Savior bullshit. And even if those early albums are still good, damn Songs of Innocence is a used moldy diaper whose stink has tainted everything. I can’t even enjoy Unforgettable Fire without catching a whiff of that dank mess dumped in my iTunes. Maybe it’s better to just forget that U2 ever happened.
It’s a cruel last irony that, in this woman’s story about overcoming sexism, Isaac’s eyes replace Julia’s, and, with this new vision, her world view becomes but a vacuous cosmic void of nice guy apologism.
Director: Guillern Morales