SEE­ING AND BE­LIEV­ING

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

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

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