I tend to like knowing as little as possible when diving into a movie I’ll be (sleepily) writing about at 2am, so I was a bit miffed when the Film4 announcer described Los Ojos de Julia as “very violent”. For all I knew this could have been a slow-burner, like Belén Rueda‘s other creep-fest, El Orfanato.
We start with a blind woman named Sara (Rueda, in a really bad wig). She’s distressed, her vision is cloudy, and she’s screaming at something that she can’t really see. Given that I chose to put on my new glasses that seem to have a way weaker prescription than they should, I’m not sure if I can see it either. So I’m really thrown into identifying with this character already. With her head in a noose and teetering on a footstool, she vows defiantly that she won’t kill herself “in front of [it]”, to which we see a foot kick the stool out from under her.
Subsequently, we see Sara’s twin sister Julia (also Rueda), who’s in the early stages of the same degenerative eye disease that her sister had. She and her husband Issac (Lluís Homar) pay their last respects after having been out of contact with Sara for six months. At the funeral, Julia thinks out loud about how she wished she had been there for her sister and how she’d forgiven both her and her husband for their affair, feels a hand on her shoulder, but upon turning around, she realises it wasn’t her husband’s. Spooky. And so begins the slow-burn.
And it’s a good one, too, chock-full of red-herrings, jump-musical-cues, and most striking of all, completely unreliable POVs and narratives. There’s some smoke and mirrors, a smattering of secrecy and intrigue, and the fact that most people don’t believe a word of Julia’s suspicious (though I still don’t know why) And because Julia’s eyesight is deteriorating with every seizure (induced by anxiety (which is an “any minute now” thing if you’re frantically trying to find out the truth about your sister’s death), the film makes clever, claustrophobic, and utterly terrifying use of Julia’s distorted POV, whether it’s her inability to see people’s faces, the black glaucoma-y clouds over her eyes, or peeking through her fingers.
Much of the respite from the film’s tension is found in the tender relationship between Julia and Isaac. But given that we’re told earlier on that there’s been a rocky past and that Issac so bizarrely refuses to hear out his wife’s concerns over the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death, there’s an ominous distrust that underpins many of their scenes together. Which is all well and good for building up tension (and I don’t want to spoil anything), but it seems like those out-of-character scenes were written and directed in a way to deliberately build up clues/red herrings and nothing else. And I suppose that’s where the problem lies.
The entire plot feels like an exercise in what one would do if compelled to write a script that turns the audience one way, then another, then another, without any of the loose ends tied up. It’s problematic because the hook of the story is that it’s mired in mystery – who is this mystery assailant? What connection (if any) does he have to X Character? Are the circumstances of Sara’s death natural, supernatural? Is Sara even dead? Are Sara and Julia the same person? As a viewer, once you’ve sussed out that the narrative is deliberately trolling your “how predictable is this plot, really?” faculties, you start to think in terms of horror cliches because that’s what this movie seems desperate to try to avoid. What results is a movie that thinks it’s trying to be clever, like a jigsaw puzzle box full of incredibly abstract pieces, but only some of them truly fit. The rest are red herrings for the sake of red herrings.
Which is a shame because it’s so well-acted. Ever since El Orfanato, I’ve found Rueda to be so compelling to watch on screen. Not because she’s beautiful (though director Guillem Morales seems to be disturbingly addicted to leering close-ups of her thighs, legs and cleavage during scenes of assault/sexual violence). Her expressive face and natural movements inhabit the character so that we genuinely feel like we’re watching this happen to a real person. The supporting characters do well, but they’re introduced and phased out in bits and pieces (to cast doubt on their good guy status), so it’s largely Rueda’s show. But even her performance can’t be the wool over our eyes (yes, I went there) of being a plotless plot device. Once you strip away the twists and turns, there’s no real story bar a weak slasher-resolution, and a lot of unforgivable plot holes. The film’s final moments, a dreamlike, visual callback to the star-gazing theme of Julia and Issac’s relationship, were reportedly what convinced del Toro to back this project. But it just makes for a forced, disingenuous tonal shift, and left me wondering how different this film could have been if del Toro’d had more influence.