By Ciara LaVelle
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We seem to be in the middle of one of those thematic blitzes that happen every now and then in the film world. This past year it was Dark City and The Truman Show; so far this year we've had EDtv, The Matrix, and eXistenZ. Coming up in the next month or so is the Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin film The Thirteenth Floor. And currently surfacing among these studio projects is Open Your Eyes, a modest Spanish film that manages to provocatively address the same issues with a minimum of money and special effects.
Open Your Eyes begins with a woman's voice softly chanting the title over the sleeping figure of handsome young Cesar (Eduardo Noriega). He wakes up, gets dressed, and goes out, but there is no one on the streets, and the traffic lights are all stuck on green. He begins to panic, then suddenly sits up in bed. It was all a dream.
With this sequence, director/co-writer Alejandro Amenabar gives us fair warning: How do we know the next scene or the rest of the film isn't another dream? By extension how do we know we're not really dreaming that a film called Open Your Eyes exists and that we're watching it? We don't.
We hear the disembodied voice of a psychiatrist (Chete Lera) asking Cesar to tell him his story once again, and this story is not necessarily to be trusted either. Cesar, we learn, has lived a charmed life: He's independently wealthy and irresistible to women. If he has a problem, it's that he's too irresistible. He has spent a night or two with Nuria (Najwa Nimri), who doesn't seem to be able to let go. While he's at a party trying to pick up Sofia (Penelope Cruz) -- Cesar is cad enough not to care that she's the date of his best friend, Pelayo (Fele Martinez) -- the obsessed Nuria stalks him. Cesar seems to be genuinely falling in love with Sofia, but his charmed life is about to become uncharmed: An auto accident soon kills Nuria and leaves Cesar horribly disfigured.
Having previously been so attractive he never needed to develop a personality or interests, he now finds himself utterly lost. He tries to start up with Sofia again, but his bitterness, rather than his disfigurement, drives her away. Then suddenly the doctors decide they can fix his face, and he is miraculously back to normal and back with Sofia. Or is he? His life starts to make no sense. His face switches between ugly and handsome; Sofia turns into Nuria. Nothing is certain. It's no plot spoiler to say that at least some of this is unreal. But what? And how much?
Like Dark City, The Matrix, and most of the others of this metaphysical thriller subgenre, this clever and unsettling film owes a lot to the works of the brilliant and prolific science-fiction author Philip K. Dick. Dick was hardly the first to mine this turf, but he did so with a thoroughness and ingenuity that makes him the godfather of this entire generation of filmmakers.
If Dark City manifested its issues in sci-fi terms, and The Matrix added Hong Kong action-film style to that mix, Open Your Eyes takes a different approach. Its visual style, whether by budget, choice, or both, is far more muted. It makes its points the old-fashioned way: through editing and lighting. This is not a bad thing. Two of the greatest films of this sort (Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Je T'aime, je t'aime (1968)) scrambled our notions of reality through the innovative manipulation of those basic elements of film language.
Amenabar makes clear reference to at least one of his prime inspirations: Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). In addition to several smaller allusions, one central scene is a close restaging of one of Vertigo's most memorable moments. Amenabar may be no Hitchcock, but this is only his second feature, and not even Hitchcock was Hitchcock early in his career. Open Your Eyes is so intriguing and judiciously controlled there's every reason to imagine Amenabar could develop into a major figure.
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