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In Association with
Julia's Eyes (2010)
Director: Guillem Morales

review by Jonathan McCalmont

There are those who argue that Spanish cinema (and the Catalan film scene in particular) is going through something of a renaissance at the moment. The reason for this is that, much like French cinema in the late 1990s, Spanish film has thrown open the genre floodgates allowing a stream of ambitious young directors to flow onto the world stage with a torrent of cheaply made but profitably exported horror films and thrillers.

Films such as Balaguer�'s Fragile (2005), Bayona's The Orphanage (2007), as well Balaguer� and Plaza's [REC] (2007), have all played well with international audiences, resulting in a sort of halo effect whereby Spanish genre flicks are getting more festival time and international critical attention than they might otherwise have expected. A prominent figure in this Spanish genre boom is the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy, and The Devil's Backbone) whose ability to woo international audiences with Spanish-language horror has served to create an environment in which Spanish genre films are more likely to find foreign distributors making it easier for Spanish genre films to get made in the first place.

Del Toro has also benefited from the creation of this genre bubble by serving as a producer and lending his name to both The Orphanage, and now Guillem Morales' Julia's Eyes (aka: Los ojos de Julia). However, despite retaining the interest of both world cinema aficionados and genre geeks, my feeling is that Spanish genre has yet to scale the heights of style and substance achieved by the new wave of French horror. While young French directors have combined arresting visual style with art house sensibilities and old school sensationalism to produce such powerful works as Martyrs, and Switchblade Romance, Spanish horror all too often finds itself straining for mere competence. Julia's Eyes is very much a part of this disappointing and growing tradition of underachievement.

The film's opening boasts a generous portion of style. Straining to be heard above the slushy song that is playing on the stereo, Sara screams that she knows someone is there and that she is not going to give in to them. The camera pans round to reveal a room that is both cloaked in shadows and pointedly empty. Clearly, if there is someone in the room with Sara then he does not want to be seen� which is maybe just as well, because Sara is blind. After making her way down to the basement, Sara climbs a stool and places her head through a noose... she wants to kill herself, but not with him watching? As the stool slips, a camera flash explodes out of the darkness, burning our eyes and planting a question in our minds: who was in the room when Sara died?

Miles away, Sara's twin sister Julia (Belen Rueda) collapses at work. She instantly knows that something has happened to her sister. As Julia travels to Sara's house with her husband Isaac (Lluis Homar), we learn that Julia suffers from the same degenerative eye disease that robbed Sara of her sight. It's a disease which, conveniently enough, is exacerbated by stress. Upon discovering Sara's body, Julia denies that Sara would ever have killed herself. Yes, she was going blind but she was also living a full life with the support of her local community. Setting forth to unravel the mystery of her sister's suicide, Julia finds herself being sucked into the strange world of the unseeing and the unseen.

Julia's Eyes makes good use of the fact that what humans fear most is what they do not know; what lurks out there in the shadows? What lies just out of sight and round the next corner? What can't we see? What can't we know? Much like Michael Apted's Blink (1994), Julia's Eyes uses blindness as a means of making the world around its protagonist seem ever more uncertain. Morales compounds this uncertainty by making Julia subject to stress-induced fits of blindness meaning that just as the world seems particularly uncertain, Julia's eyesight will suddenly fail plunging her into shadow and the world ever deeper into the still black waters of the unknown. Unfortunately, while cloaking the world in this particularly aggressive and dynamic form of uncertainty may provide a sound theoretical basis for cinematic terror, Morales struggles to imbue his film with even a modicum of tension.

The chief problem with Morales' direction is that he allows his scenes to drag on for far too long without ever really developing beyond their initial conditions. Time and again, Morales makes effective use of sound effects and lighting cues to create an unsettling atmosphere only for this atmosphere to dissipate as audiences are allowed to grow accustomed their cinematic surroundings. For example, in one early sequence, Julia creeps into a changing room filled with half-naked blind women who are talking about her sister. Between the glazed expressions of the blind women, the sense of voyeuristic intrusion and the cold blue tinge to the lighting, the scene is undeniably creepy but, having set the scene, Morales fails to do anything with this atmosphere as the blind women happily chat back and forth until the audience adapt to their initial disquiet.

A similar failure to progress the scene is noticeable in a sequence where Julia is chasing someone down a darkened corridor. Again, the scene is neatly set with some subdued lighting, muffled breathing and an air of claustrophobia. However, rather than building upon this uncomfortable feel, Morales allows the scene to drag on until neither the corridor or the situation seems all that threatening. Morales' systematic failure to build upon his initial ideas becomes increasingly evident as each new scene finds him returning to the same set of cinematic techniques. Nor does it help matters that Morales is a director without much visual flair to begin with.

Beyond the booming sound-effects and ice-blue lens filters that are now de rigueur in every horror film, Morales brings only the use of gauze to communicate loss of sight and a tendency to shoot people from the neck down in an attempt to keep their identities a secret and so echo his protagonist's sense of isolation and uncertainty surrounding people. This lack of ideas is such a disappointment as the script allowed numerous opportunities for arresting cinema.

For example, one character is described as being so bland to look at that people systematically fail to remember his face. This device positively demanded that Morales follow the example set by William Friedkin's Cruising (1980) by having a series of different actors play the villain. Instead of this, Morales has a relatively handsome man play the baddy meaning that the description of him as being faceless seems like little more than empty bluster from a film desperate to stack the deck in order to overcome its director's technical shortcomings.

Similarly, the film fails to follow either Blink, or Jonathan Demme's The Silence Of The Lambs (1991), in making the most of the fact that while the protagonist cannot see the world around them... we can. Where were the scenes in which a blind Julia stumbles through a world we knew to be hideous? Cinema is, above all, a visual medium and using such a medium to explore the fear of losing one's sight offers an embarrassment of riches for any director ambitious enough to make the most of the thematic and visual possibilities. Clearly, Guillem Morales is not such a director.

In addition to being weighted down by technical incompetence and a plethora of wasted opportunities, Julia's Eyes also suffers for the fact that its script (penned by Morales, and Oriol Paulo) is ferociously dumb, intensely sentimental and mildly offensive to blind people. Indeed, whenever the film introduces us to a blind character, it goes out of its way to portray them as either profoundly other, or as a shambling wreck who cannot cope with the burdens of living a life without sight. Morales' blind characters are wee timorous beasties who shelter indoors, away from the world because they are incapable of coming to terms with their condition and picking up the myriad tricks and techniques that real blind people use every day of their lives.

For example, there are no guide dogs in this film. Nor are there any brail markers or white canes. Blind characters flail wildly at the world and inhabit spaces filled with the sort of fragile bric-a-brac and low stools that real blind people know to avoid as they construct home environments that suit their own special needs. This presentation of blind people as completely incapable of functioning independently feeds into the film's attempt to tap into our incipient fear of losing our sight but it also demonstrates the film's systematic tendency to over-work its script in an attempt to force us into the sort of emotional responses that should result from what we see on the screen.

For example, the relationship between Julia and her husband Isaac is hamstrung by a complete lack of chemistry between Rueda and Homar. In and of itself, this shortcoming need not have been fatal as a clever script would have created situations in which the characters' love for each would have been apparent. However, instead of allowing the relationship to develop naturally, Morales and Paulo's script veers wildly between drowning us in slushy sentiment and undermining the relationship in order to use the couple's distrust as a source of tension. Swinging from one extreme to another, the relationship never feels real and Morales' attempt to milk the relationship for a big dramatic ending falls absolutely flat. Yet again, an opportunity is missed and the execution is bungled.

At time of writing, Julia's Eyes boasts a score of '96 percent fresh' on Rotten Tomatoes and, despite its terrible script, its underperforming actors and its bungled direction, it is easy to understand why. At the end of the day, Julia's Eyes is a film that looks the part. Stripped of many of the genre trappings that make films such as James Wan's Insidious (2011) a lightning rod for critical revulsion, the film has good enough production values to make it easy to situate in the decidedly uneven field that might be referred to as 'art house thrillers'.

These films appeal to both world cinema aficionados and genre geeks without fully satisfying either. As a work of world cinema, Julia's Eyes follows in the footsteps of Juan Jose Campanella's Oscar-winning The Secret In Their Eyes (2009), by offering audiences a bit more excitement than your average tale of existential angst and broken humanity. It is a populist thriller that one can enjoy without coming across either as a geek or as multiplex scum. However, once you look past the marketing and the fact that foreign-language films are still seen as somehow being 'more intelligent' than films made in English, you will find that Julia's Eyes is little more than a promising idea for a horror movie wasted as a result of its weak direction.

Julia's Eyes

Los ojos de Julia

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