By SIMON HOUPT
Friday, April 20, 2018
Filmmakers who bring their movies to the Toronto International Film Festival often try to springboard from the red carpet right into a splashy opening. But the Montreal-based writer-director Kim Nguyen is probably grateful that Eye on Juliet, which played at TIFF last September, waited seven months before opening this weekend in Toronto and Vancouver, because its sharp ambivalence about surveillance and communication technology now seems even more astutely timed to a growing global concern about the tools used to monitor our every move.
The film, set in Detroit and an unidentified North African country, is about a melancholic young man named Gordon (Joe Cole) who works in a windowless office on the edge of town, operating small, six-legged robotic devices known as hexapods or spider drones half a world away.
He's supposed to stay focused on guarding an oil pipeline, but with all of that seductive technology at his fingertips - powerful cameras, microphones, translation software - and a broken heart from a recent breakup, Gordon allows himself to be pulled into a domestic drama beaming live to his desktop screens from the desert hills: Ayusha (Lina El Arabi) is a modern-day Juliet, forbidden to see her lover and promised by her family to another man.
It is rich material, with echoes that stretch from the voyeuristic Rear Window to The Conversation, Snowden (and its real-life whistle-blowing subject) and this month's Mark Zuckerberg testimony before the U.S. Congress.
Still, if you had asked Nguyen during TIFF to articulate what he was trying to express with Eye on Juliet, he might have had some difficulty. That's because: a) His wife had given birth to their second child only eight weeks before, and he was accordingly sleep-deprived; b) He was in the final stages of preproduction on last October's shoot of The Hummingbird Project, a drama about high-frequency trading starring Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard that, at $17-million, was set to be the biggest film he'd ever done; and c) He says he usually discovers what he's trying to say with a film only after it's finished and he's being interviewed about it.
This can be a challenge, especially when he's trying to get a film made.
"There are a lot of things I can't really explain empirically why I did them [in Eye on Juliet]. I wrote the script very much using a kind of instinctual mode of writing," he says, leaning forward in what may be both an expression of interest and an effort to keep himself awake during a run of festival interviews.
"I think we should do films without trying to explain everything. I think that's one of the hardest things to protect, ambiguity. Analysts who fund your film, and producers - they're not comfortable with ambiguity. So, sometimes you're just going to give an answer to something because they need an answer."
In War Witch (a.k.a. Rebelle), for example, his devastating 2012 Oscar-nominated drama about child soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa, Nguyen recalls that he included a scene set in an albino village. "I had to fight for that village to stay in the script for, like, four years. It had no dramatic reason to be there," he says. "It's still one of my favourite scenes."
When War Witch played on the CBC last summer, it was preceded by a discussion that touched on the issue of cultural appropriation and one panelist suggested the film was told "through the lens of Canadian or Quebecois privilege."
When this is raised, Nguyen replies: "I've listened to the arguments. ... I can understand the concerns, but I think what's important is the story that's finished. It's not about who's doing it or not, if it's done with respect."
After War Witch and Two Lovers and a Bear, his 2016 Arctic drama in which Tatiana Maslany and Dane DeHaan play lovers desperate to escape the ghosts of their past, Nguyen says he wanted to make a film about "people who are average."
"With what's happening around the world, we don't talk about average people any more," he offers. "We get a sense that everything is extreme, that everybody is extreme right, or is a terrorist. I thought it was interesting that the main characters of this film are ordinary people in extraordinary situations - the pure Spielbergian approach to characters. I want to get back to that more: Amazing, intense situations where you have normal human beings that have to face that."
In Eye on Juliet, the human beings are exceedingly normal; it's the situations that may seem absurd (even if they, too, are real).
In one early scene, Gordon uses a drone to observe a pair of local bootleggers trying to tap oil from a pipe. After issuing a verbal warning, which the men treat as an empty threat, Gordon picks up a joystick and opens fire, scaring them away.
As Gordon's hexapod turns back to its base, another robot operated by his co-worker, Peter (Brent Skagford), comes into the frame. Peter has been pestering Gordon to download some hookup apps that will help him meet women, and as the two drones scupper through the sand, the voices of their mild locker-room banter plays over the robots on screen.
"One of the concerns I think we all have is the privatization of the military," Nguyen says. "I think about 30 per cent of most states' military are private firms.
So, the right to kill, the right to attack, the right to engage - all of that is something that makes you think a lot. In our case, we decided to do it with an ironic angle, because there's so much depth in that question: You touch it, or you go deep on it, but you can't be in between."
Still, he says, in Eye on Juliet, "the geopolitical elements of the film are really like a distant tapestry, for an intimate story between the two characters."
"Gordon is kind of like a romantic who has the impulses of a hero, but he's locked inside of a prison where he can't break out," Nguyen adds.
"I think he's a flawed human being, just like we all are. And I think one of the themes of the film is, we're kind of isolated, and how do we find a way to be heroic and connect with other human beings?" Eye on Juliet
CLASSIFICATION 14A; 90 MINUTES
Written and directed by Kim Nguyen Starring Joe Cole and Lina El Arabi
"Reach out and touch someone," the long-distance telephone ads used to say.
But Gordon, a morose Detroiter trying to get over a bad breakup, knows technology has its limits. He spends his nights in a windowless office, monitoring video feeds beamed in from a collection of spider drones, crawling robotic devices that he operates as if in a real-life video game, that are guarding an oil pipeline outside a North African village.
During one shiftless shift, Gordon (Peaky Blinders's babyfaced Joe Cole) eavesdrops on a lovers' assignation amid the desert hills. Using the robot's surveillance equipment and translation software, he realizes the couple are a modern-day Romeo and Juliet: Ayusha (Lina El Arabi, a veteran of another forced-marriage drama, A Wedding) has been promised by her parents to an older man.
A true romantic in the swiperight era of dating - albeit one with a creepy, voyeuristic bent - Gordon resolves to help them.
After the magical realism of his Arctic-set Two Lovers and a Bear and the Oscar-nominated child soldier drama Rebelle, Montreal-based writer-director Nguyen opts for a mildly ironic tack - all this communication technology, and we're more disconnected than ever - but his earnestness gets the better of him. Like Gordon, he's a romantic at heart. Though not as creepy, thank goodness.
Joe Cole plays a melancholic young drone operator working in a windowless Detroit office in Kim Nguyen's Eye on Juliet.