SEEING AND BELIEVING
MENTION Spanish cinema and what comes to mind? Penelope Cruz, Pedro Almodovar, Carlos Saura’s tango sequences, lusty adaptations of Carmen? These days the best Spanish films are likelier to be horror movies. Julia’s Eyes is a Spanish horror film — a good one — and the name above the title isn’t that of Belen Rueda, the star, or Guillem Morales, the director. The posters give most of the credit to the producer, Guillermo del Toro, who made his name with that surreal masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, the story of a girl who escapes from the real world of Franco’s fascist regime into a world of fantasy. For Julia, the heroine of Julia’s Eyes, the only escape from her horrifying fantasies may lie in the real world.
Julia’s Eyes is about blindness and the audience is compelled to share Julia’s terror at the prospect of losing her sight. It belongs to a Spanish surrealist tradition that began with Salvador Dali and the films of Luis Bunuel. Dali collaborated with Bunuel on L’Age d’Or (1930), long banned for its anti-clericalism, and the silent short film Le Chien Andalou, with its notorious close-up of a razor slicing through an eyeball. ( Julia’s Eyes has a similar, barely watchable shot of an eyeball.) In 1945 Dali began work on an animated film, Destino, a collaboration with the Disney studios that finally saw the light of day in 2003. Alfred Hitchcock, another director fascinated by surrealism, hired Dali to design the dream sequences in Spellbound, his great psychological thriller with Ingrid Bergman.
With Julia’s Eyes we’re a long way from the earthy good humour and black-comic pleasures of admired Spanish films such as Fernando Trueba’s Belle Epoque or Bigas Luna’s Jamon, Jamon. I think the turning point came with Almodovar’s Matador, whose intense images of sex and death pointed forward to the present Spanish fascination with mystery and horror. Coming up soon on cable TV is a 2009 Spanish horror film called Rec 2, about teenagers who break into a quarantined zone besieged by zombies. Cruz, before making her name as a sex symbol (and adding spice to the latest instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), starred in Alejandro Amenabar’s Open Your Eyes, in which a young man, hideously deformed in a car crash, finds himself trapped in a world of terrifying unreality and delusion.
Eyes have always fascinated filmmakers. It may have something to do with the cinema’s potency as a visual medium: what we see is what we get, and the absence of seeing, for a cinema audience, is a kind of death. The Eye, one of the top-grossing Asian films of recent years, was about a girl who sees visions of dead people after receiving an eye transplant (it was remade in a Hollywood version with Jessica Alba). And who can forget Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, playing a blind woman threatened by unseen intruders in her apartment? Adapted from Frederick Knott’s play, it was one of those mechanical but highly effective plots that appealed to Hitchcock, who tried unsuccessfully to secure the film rights. There are many Hitchcock references in Julia’s Eyes. The notion of a helpless woman (preferably blonde) terrorised by forces beyond her control would have appealed to Hitch’s sadistic streak, which found its fullest expression in The Birds. In Julia’s Eyes the horrors may be imaginary — we are never sure — but they are rooted in a real world of mental derangement. Julia may be closer to Catherine Deneuve’s psychotic protagonist in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion than she is to Hepburn or Tippi Hedren.
The boundary between sanity and delusion was explored in The Orphanage (El Orphanato), another Spanish film with Rueda, in which a boy is abducted by his imaginary friends. ( The Others, with Nicole Kidman in one of her best roles, was Amenabar’s variation on the same theme: children menaced by the power of evil.)
There are no children in Julia’s Eyes. Julia has a loving husband, Isaac (Lluis Homar), and they live in a gloomy house that could be anywhere. We aren’t told much about her. Does she have a day job? What does her husband do? The film opens in full-tilt horror mode when Julia’s twin sister, Sara, hangs herself in the basement of her house. Sara has been blinded by a degenerative eye disease and Julia is horrified to discover that she, too, is going blind. The signs are barely noticeable at first, but as the episodes of visual disturbance become more frequent the audience is made to share them. For most of the film we see only what Julia sees. When other characters appear, Morales contrives to keep their faces hidden. Heads are out of frame, backs are turned. It’s an unsettling device that allows the action to unfold while restricting our field of vision. It is as if, like Julia’s, our own eyes are bandaged.
Waiting for a donor transplant, Julia is obsessed with the idea that her sister was murdered. Her efforts to discover the truth about Sara’s death provide a secondary theme of mystery. This leads to a series of terrifying experiences at the hands of Julia’s so-called carer, Ivan (Pablo Derqui). The wife of a neighbour is gruesomely killed, someone dies in a bathtub and Isaac goes missing when Julia needs him most. The possibility that everything we are seeing is a nightmare and that Julia’s only hope of redemption lies in the power of love does nothing to make the horrors more endurable.
No one can accuse Morales of halfheartedness. He begins on a note of mild hysteria and sustains it to the final moments. Every well-tried scary movie device is deployed with relish: crashing thunderstorms at climactic moments, looming faces and shadowy figures, a relentless musical score, a gallery of women with blank, staring eyes at a centre for the blind. We even get the occasional morning-after outdoor relief shot to point up the contrast in moods. Val Lewton was a specialist in such tricks when making werewolf movies for Universal in the 1930s. It’s amazing how well they still work. None of Morales’s film feels corny or overdone. Rueda (who plays Julia and her sister) projects a mood of mounting panic and desperation with great conviction. As I’ve said before, we are more inclined to overlook phoniness or excess if a film is subtitled. If Julia’s Eyes were a Hollywood movie we might consider it over the top. But one way or another, it works.
Belen Rueda in Julia’s Eyes
Belen Rueda and Lluis Homar