'Eye on Juliet': Film Review | Venice 2017

EYE ON JULIET - Still 1 -Publicity -H 2017
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Failure to launch.

Joe Cole and Lina El Arabi headline this long-distance drama from 'War Witch' director Kim Nguyen.

A drone operator in Detroit who has just been dumped by his girlfriend adopts a North African girl who is about to be married off against her will as a long-distance pet project in Eye on Juliet, a surprisingly cliched and tone-deaf melodrama updated with some newish technology. This is director Kim Nguyen's second English-language film, after Dane DeHaan vehicle Two Lovers and a Bear from 2016, and like that film the setup and central conceit are promising but the storytelling is more often shaky than smooth. To make matters worse, the dark shadow of a white-savior complex hangs over the movie like a cloud, which is a surprise, since the writer-director's Oscar-nominated drama, War Witch, about a female child soldier in Sub-Saharan Africa, told the story from the African lead's perspective in a perceptive, psychologically nuanced and culturally sensitive way. There is nothing of that here, with the film offering a very limited, borderline banal view of its African characters, stick figures that need the help of a recently rejected white man playing with a joystick in a joyless office somewhere in Michigan. After its twin bows in Venice and Toronto, this will have to fight an uphill battle for more big-screen exposure.

Gordon (Brit actor Joe Cole, A Prayer Before Dawn), with a buzz cut and watery blue eyes, works a deadly, boring job as a drone operator for a company that handles the security of an oil pipeline somewhere in North Africa. From the safety of their tiny offices in Detroit, Gordon and colleague Peter (Brent Skagford, Source Code), manipulate hexapods that move through the African desert around the pipeline. The six-legged drones are equipped with cameras, guns, voice recorders and speakers that allow them to talk with locals or take them out, should they try to illegally get their hands on the "chocolate sauce," as Gordon calls it. The machines contain state-of-the-art translation equipment, allowing Gordon to speak in colloquial English and the robot to communicate what he says in perfect Arabic in the desert, though the pods aren't very advanced mechanically, with their legs often giving out on the rocky terrain and no apparent possibility to resort to flying drones.

Immediately after a dramatic breakup with his girlfriend that ends with Gordon being thrown out of a club by a bouncer, Peter wants his sullen colleague to start seeing other women and installs a dating app on Gordon's phone. But for the drone operator, all that cyber interconnectivity amounts to nothing more than hollow chats, boring coffee dates and joyless sex. The blunt message is clear: Gordon longs for a profound connection and a validation of his existence in this world. He finds it when he starts cyberstalking a pretty Maghrebi girl, Ayusha (French actress Lina El Arabi), who secretly meets up with Karim (Faycal Zeglat), her boyfriend who looks like a matinee idol, near the pipeline, so the couple are within viewing and hearing distance of Gordon's spider-like equipment.

Dejected little Gordon doesn't seem to have any friends or family, only one colleague and just one supervisor who pops up once to remind him that, as a security company, they "need threats" to survive. Since he has no private life of his own, perhaps it's no wonder Gordon gets sucked into the African couple's plan to escape their otherwise undefined country after Ayusha has been promised to a much older man in an arranged-marriage setup. One thing is certain: The two two-dimensional, exotic lovers stuck in a hackneyed subplot definitely need saving. And perhaps the security expert's effort to help them from the comfort of his own office will help him get his sense of self-worth back and get over that horrible feeling you get after you've been dumped and the women you meet online in the following week all just want to use you for coffee and sex.

Nguyen, who also wrote the screenplay, really paints himself into a corner here, tying Gordon's salvation to the salvation of his two North African characters who need to flee their continent and need to rely on the kindness of a drone to get them to safety and happiness in Europe. Since there is absolutely zero sense of context and virtually no nuance, Nguyen's Africa thus seems a place where all women want to escape and need a white man to save them. There is a single scene in which the future husband apologetically talks to Ayusha and for a split second, it seems like the film might explore the numerous gray zones of the female lead's life. But after that scene, the male character disappears from view and is never heard from again.

The girl's traditional parents (Mbarek Mahmoudi, Amal Ayouch) are also very perfunctorily drawn and there is no sense how Ayusha relates to them beyond the fact she disapproves of the marriage they have in mind for her, which makes her decision to leave everything behind seem more plot-driven than grounded in any kind of reality. And the fact that she mans — pun intended — a cybercafe and money-transfers office and thus earns a salary is a fascinating part of her life that's also left frustratingly unexplored. Certainly her occupation and income give her a measure of independence and suggests her parents aren't 100-percent traditionalists who don't want their daughter to leave the house?

The film isn't the first to tackle the use of drones, with films such as Full Contact, Eye in the Sky and Good Kill all having similarly told stories about where new technologies are taking us in terms of surveillance and detaching ourselves physically from the world around us, even as we believe we are more interconnected than ever. Nguyen doesn't have anything new or particularly insightful to add to this debate, which is a shame because the idea of a long-distance love story conducted via drone sounds like the kind of pitch that could sell tickets.

Though stuck in a role that lacks nuance and saddled with some clunky English-language dialogue, Cole is at least a fascinating actor to watch while he's watching his screens. El Arabi is also solid, but she suffers from having headlined a much more nuanced exploration of arranged marriage just last year, Stephan Streker’s A Wedding. All other actors are bit players.

Visually, cinematographer Christophe Collette (The Transporter Refueled) often frames Gordon in tight symmetrical close-ups as he watches his screens at work, which pays off toward the end when the operator starts communicating with Ayusha via the drone and Nguyen's regular editor, Richard Comeau, can then create the illusion of shots/reverse shots even though the characters are thousands of miles apart. Production design in the African desert (shot in Morocco) is bare bones, as is the re-creation of Detroit, which feels more like a random name of a U.S. city slapped on Canadian locations than specifically the second-largest city in the Midwest. Timber Timbre's score is very present throughout but at least refrains from veering into something too ethnic.

Production companies: Item 7, Films Distribution
Cast: Joe Cole, Brent Skagford, Lina El Arabi, Faycal Zeglat, Mohammed Sakhi, Hatim Saddiki, Mansour Badri, Ayisha Issa, Sinem Kara, Kelly Creig, Alexia Fast, Mbarek Mahmoudi, Amal Ayouch
Writer-Director: Kim Nguyen
Producer: Pierre Even
Executive producers: Jess Sackman, Marie-Claude Poulin, Mark Slone, Sebastien Beffa, Francois Yon, Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, Valery Guibal
Director of photography: Christophe Collette
Production designer: Emmanuel Frechette
Costume designer: Valerie Belegou
Editor: Richard Comeau
Music: Timber Timbre
Casting: Lucie Robitaille, Margery Simkin, Mathilde Snodgras, Aziza Marzak
Sales: Films Distribution
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)

In English, Arabic
No rating, 90 minutes