This pervy neo-noir thriller uses Montreal as a multipurpose backdrop

Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd star in the strangely pretentious Eye of the Beholder.

Ashley Judd and Ewan McGregor in one of the many overly-complicated trick shots in Eye of the Beholder 

The film: Eye of the Beholder (1999)

Does Montreal play itself? In one scene, the main character lists the cities he’s been in since the beginning of the film and Montreal is one of them. In that sense, Montreal plays itself, but it also plays a few other places (including Lisbon, a credit shared with Quebec City, which overall features more prominently in the film than Montreal, and Chicago). More importantly, though, I had no idea that Montreal was actually supposed to be playing itself until it was textually mentioned in the film, which is probably a Made in MTL first. I suppose it’s convenient that just about everywhere the movie travels kinda looks like Montreal — only the Nevada desert is absolutely 100 per cent assuredly not played by Old Montreal.

(As a completely unrelated aside, I distinctly remember some news stories in my native Saguenay around the time the film was being shot; as I recall, the production team had scouted a bridge in Chicoutimi to feature prominently. I don’t recall other news stories about this but the search was clearly fruitful as the entire last, Alaska-set sequence was shot up there. Battlefield Earth also possesses that ultimate honour, but that’s for a different time.)

Most egregious local landmark: There’s another Made in MTL first in this category: a recognizable building playing more than one role. The Théâtre St. James/Canadian Bank of Commerce building on St-Jacques first appears roughly as itself in the Montreal portion of the film, then reappears later (adorned with some scaffolding) in the Lisbon sequences. Windsor Station also features prominently in the scenes where Ashley Judd’s character first hooks up with a rich blind man played by Patrick Bergin. A late-in-the-game shootout happens at the corners of St-Pierre and des Récollets in Old Montreal.

Notable local talent: Everyone besides the first five or six top-billed actors is at the very least Canadian and more often than not based in Montreal, so take your pick. Eye of the Beholder showcases a rare film role for Josa Maule, owner of the Montreal School of Performing Arts (she plays a receptionist in the film’s first scene), but the supporting cast is a veritable who’s who of Montreal character actors — even in the sequences ostensibly shot elsewhere.

To describe a film as “ahead of its time” is to infer a certain prescience to the film’s content. Films that are ahead of their time are quite literally too advanced for the time of their release and can only be understood once society has caught up to them. The problem with this logic is that a certain amount of time has to pass before this opinion can be ascribed to a film; it’s disingenuous to say a movie is ahead of its time right upon release, because there’s actually no way to know.

Stephan Elliott’s plodding sub-Hitchcockian thriller Eye of the Beholder is ahead of its time in a different and much more nebulous way: it’s a movie that was made in a period when technological advances made the filmmakers believe that they could pull off a film that they otherwise couldn’t have. A sizeable chunk of what doesn’t work in Eye of the Beholder can be chalked up to the fact that the technology wasn’t anywhere near where the movie thinks it is, and therefore a great deal of this techno-thriller is nigh-unwatchable security footage, blurry digital photo printouts and computerized hogwash passing as exposition. Of course, this isn’t the first movie to have technology that doesn’t hold up some two decades later, but it’s one of the only ones that would probably be significantly more watchable if it had been made in 2018.

Théâtre St. James and Ashley Judd in Eye of the Beholder

Stephen Wilson (Ewan McGregor) works as a spy for a British agency that assigns him to various targets, governmental or not; he’s less James Bond than a glorified private eye with access to lots of cool scopes and other doodads. He’s tasked by his boss (Vlasta Vrana) to tail his son (Steven McCarthy), whom he believes has gotten himself into some deep shit. It’s even worse than that, really: the son has shacked up with Joanna Eris (Ashley Judd), a Black Widow-type serial killer who systematically murders all of her lovers. Wilson soon becomes obsessed with Eris as she moves from man to man; he’s both obsessed with preventing her from killing again and somehow fascinated by her urges, not to mention that he has recurring hallucinations of his own daughter, who he has lost custody of sometime in the past.

You’ve never seen a movie try so hard to run away from its pulpy origins. Though it’s based on a fairly well-regarded novel (one that was already adapted once in France in the ’80s), on paper Eye of the Beholder doesn’t have much to distinguish it from your average straight-to-video softcore of the early ’90s. It’s got a heavy voyeuristic bent and the kind of well-worn neo-noir tropes that saturated the low-key perv market in the ’90s. It even features Jason Priestley as a bleached-blonde, dope fiend greaseball in the purest Brad Pitt tradition. Where many filmmakers would embrace such elements and play up the overheated and overfamiliar nature of the plot, Elliott decides to leave such things in the dust immediately and just chuck his camera at everything with a powerful rage. Simply put, Eye of the Beholder is one of the most aggressively over-directed films of an already busy decade, settling somewhere between lush European arthouse cinema and the most egregious of Tony Scott’s kaleidoscopic power trips.

This overbearing style does have some charm. Elliott never stops filming scenes from every angle, often shooting from a bird’s eye view from within the ceiling. Complicated trick shots (a mirror reflecting another mirror reflecting McGregor — who’s outside the building — while Judd bathes in the foreground) basically make up every other sequence in the film. It’s the kind of movie that makes it plainly obvious that they built all kinds of wonky-ass sets just to accommodate a single camera move, and it certainly makes the whole thing weirder, even if it doesn’t necessarily pull off its assumed intended goal of elevating the material beyond a Shannon Tweed joint.

Windsor Station, Ewan McGregor and another showy-yet-impractical camera angle in Eye of the Beholder

It’s at this level that I feel perhaps Eye of the Beholder would have been better served being made in 2018. It would still be a lopsided techno-thriller and it would still basically have the same romantic-stalker plot as so many movies before it (although Eye of the Beholder is so haphazardly plotted, you may not even notice), but it would give the whole thing a running start if the first hour didn’t consist of Ewan McGregor sitting in a car looking at Ashley Judd’s butt through muddy purple monitors. Granted, a movie like this would never be made now, with its repeated misogyny and brazenly scummy sense of morality, or it would be made with a much more heightened sense of irony. But it would also be well-served by the technology that otherwise serves to obscure and confuse a film that’s already borderline incomprehensible.

I will say — I have enjoyed movies that have the general traits of incomprehensibility and misplaced pretension in service of formless pulp in the past, but they were almost always from the ’60s or ’70s. Perhaps the problem with Eye of the Beholder’s wavering sense of disorienting psychotronic nonsense backed with stodgy, incomprehensible boredom is that it hasn’t become vintage yet. ■

See more films Made in MTL here.