Murder for Two

Oedipal Death-Cycles in 'The Eye of the Beholder'

by Imran Khan

19 April 2016

Behm turns the detective novel first on its head and then sideways before shot-putting it across a terrain of Żuławskian terror; its film adaptation is an equally nerve-wracking descent into oedipal destruction.
 
cover art

The Eye of the Beholder

Marc Behm

(No Exit)
US: Dec 1969

cover art

The Eye of the Beholder (Mortelle Randonnée)

Director: Claude Miller
Cast: Michel Serrault, Isabelle Adjani

1983

One morning, a private detective, known only as The Eye, receives an assignment from his superiors in which he is to trail a young bachelor who has strayed from his wealthy family. The job seems easy enough, but during his stakeout he soon discovers a hitch that will irrevocably turn his entire life upside down.

Said hitch is a lovely young woman, hanging on the arm of the young bachelor that The Eye has been assigned to observe. Instinctively, he snaps her photo. She’s clearly the reason why this young man refuses to see his family anymore. But there is something more…

The Eye cannot put his finger on it. What attracts him so to this strange young woman? Who is she and where did she come from? Following the couple around town, the detective learns that they are to be married very soon. They will elope later that day and The Eye will tail them back to a cottage in the middle of the woods where he will watch them from the shadows of the trees at night. Later, the young woman will murder her new husband, then dispose of his body in the lake the next morning.

What begins is one of the most enigmatic, deranged and heartbreaking love affairs ever committed in fiction. Marc Behm’s The Eye of the Beholder (1980) turns the detective novel first on its head and then sideways before shot-putting it across a terrain of Żuławskian terror. The surrealism at work here is an overactive mind eclipsed by the paranoid delusions of a grieving parent. Once The Eye has the object of his obsession lined up in his sights, there’s the retribution of a lost child to contend with again and again.

Behm’s story, a murder-mystery caper with erotic dimensions, finds a strange, sometimes deadly, catharsis in relieving oneself from the world at large, abandoning reality for the crueler distortions of internal logic. Such is the myopic life of the antihero of Behm’s misshapen, byzantine tale of silent carnage.

Believing this alluring young murderess to be the incarnate of his long-missing grade school daughter, The Eye neurotically follows (furtively, from varying distances) his suspect from state to state, endeavoring to protect her from whatever forces may intercept her murderous sprees. Concealing the young woman’s felonies in an effort to thwart the police, The Eye becomes a willing accomplice in both crime and a subverted form of incest of which his lost daughter becomes the imperceptible target. Be they officers of the law or would-be lovers, people are dispatched with the casual and effortless movements of a deadly woman who has been ruined by a lifetime of sordid touches. Whatever she happens to leave unadorned by the hand of death, her silent and nearly invisible assailant steps in to finish the job.

Managing an altogether deeply probing and subtle exploration of the oedipal cycle, the author dissects the perverted desires of older men in a curious stretch of noirish drama and Freudian destruction. Though the story is never focalized from the point of the young and clever serial killer, her role in the father-daughter circuit of death proves functional every time she kills; every murder committed seems to heighten The Eye’s sexual sense of self and parental concern.

No killing is bereft of some reminder of his missing (possibly dead) daughter, Maggie, who haunts the frame of the story as a ghost, either sitting alongside The Eye during car chases or hovering eerily in lonely fields by the sides of the road. The young killer, who is later revealed by her true name, Joanna Eris, assumes a variety of names and disguises, thereby providing a blank canvas for which Maggie will be cast onto as a vicarious co-conspirator.

The phenomenal sense of longing and sadness with which the story is imbued is impressive. Behm expertly draws two despondent loners from the gritty pulp novels of David Goodis and redresses them with a certain deconstruction worthy of Émile Zola. In Behm’s world of refracted rage, loneliness and oedipal desires, perpetrators and victims are pulled into mortuary focus under a Weltanschauung lens. Levelled by a narrative which refuses to define a purposeful morality, criminals and victims are reduced to a primary base of ego-driven needs; death is the only distinguishing line that separates killer from victim.

For every crime and body concealed, there’s the revealing of a deeper, more pressing transgression articulated in the sexual exploits of this one dangerous woman (she marries, copulates, then kills); when Joanna cannot consummate her affairs with any meaningful connection to the fading memory of her long-dead father, any reminders of such failed attempts at love (i.e., every man in her life) must be duly exterminated. In an endless, hopeless chase across state lines, a story of yearnings, both poisonous and heart-rending, is drawn in a narrative arc that covers nearly 20 years.

Claude Miller’s voguish 1983 French film adaptation of Behm’s novel (Mortelle Randonnée) revisits this death-chase in a splendorous European panorama. What were once state lines are now country borders and The Eye (played by the late comedic actor Michel Serrault) follows the young woman (the impossibly beautiful Isabelle Adjani) throughout the European continent. Pulling back from the far more dangerous waters Behm explores, Miller opts for the more impressionable touches of humor, realized by the dramatically camp jazz score courtesy of American free jazz composer Carla Bley.

Miller’s film embodies a typically ‘80s sense of stylized iniquity. This is undoubtedly down to Adjani’s participation; her casting was almost certainly deliberate, in that her renowned beauty (cool, glassy, unshattered elegance) presents a perfect artifice for the callous and dastardly crimes committed with an almost modish and urbane flair. Adjani, a skilled actress whose onscreen passions are transformed with movements of considerable empathy, instills in Joanna a calculated poignancy; the actress manages a quietly disciplined approach to uncovering the layers of an enigmatic sociopath so that she may reveal true flesh within a stone-encased heart. With the choice casting of Adjani and a narrative that maintains the novel’s emotional essence, Miller succeeds in making murder look like a fetching exercise in cathartic release, reinventing Behm’s original story with upscale new wave chic.

In the fantasist (perhaps punkishly romantic) slant of an ‘80s thriller, Mortelle Randonée works up a cosmopolitan atmosphere of dread and sordid black humour, the comic foils of which perpetuate much of the plot. Adjani’s sensitive alternations between rage and wounded coquettishness are sized up against Serrault’s cool-as-can-be eccentricities. The inescapable foibles which follow Serrault often preset the action, deepening the nearly extrasensory bond between detective and murderess.

Though Joanna is never consciously aware of being followed by The Eye, the shadow of his presence always haunts the vicinities; in an emotionally-weighted scene, Adjani’s character walks a neon-lit street one night in a strange city and tunes into a higher frequency emitted from The Eye’s psychic space: “I’m going home,” she responds to a telepathically delivered question. It’s a moment rarely seen in even the most adroit thrillers of intellectual persuasion—a touch employed by Miller which reinforces the profoundly mystifying, sometimes perverse, alliance between father and daughter. In both the filmmaker’s and novelist’s vision, Joanna becomes the divining ghost that The Eye chases after, an adult projection of everything he never dreamed his own daughter could be—everything she may as well be now in his hopeless and desperate pursuit. 

What both Miller and Behm present here is a story of convoluted desires, ones that follow long-winding roads across country and into the desolate environments of both land and soul. Joanna murders her way through various men the way she does her various selves; each death uncovers a new depth of character, revealed in the casting off of an emotional instigator.

In the disoriented longings of sex, death and parental love, the oedipal cycles here come to an end when kin are united with the ghosts of their past and present. The true horror of the story, however, lies in what is revealed in the very last stretch, the final fragment of whatever is left of a person when trauma plays parent to a child, now lost and receding into a void of nothingness…

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