Open Your Eyes
Directed by Alejandro Amenábar
The 1998 Sundance Film Fest hit Open Your Eyes announced Alejandro Amenábar as one of the top directors working today. His sophomore feature is a labyrinth, thick in mystery, with intricate plot twists and a riddle that will keep you guessing to the final reel.
Millionaire playboy César (Eduardo Noriega) has it all: money, good looks and an endless supply of beautiful women – only he takes his fortunes and the people who surround him for granted. His latest female bed-buddy, Nuria (Najwa Nimri), gets a little too close for César’s comfort and in a jealous rage crashes her car, driving the two into a brick wall. She’s killed, but Cesar survives, only to have his face horribly disfigured. César is forced to walk around wearing a mask to conceal his scars and his hopes of getting back together with the woman of his dreams, Sophia (Penelope Cruz), seem slim. In addition to his newly grotesque features, he is also facing a murder charge for a crime initially unknown to us.
Intelligent, audacious and complex filmmaking would be a good start in describing Open Your Eyes. It’s a film that transcends multiple genres – melodrama, romance, noir, science fiction. Eyes is a cautionary tale and a morality play blending such themes as imaginary worlds, obsession, dreams and illusion vs. reality. Perhaps the biggest accomplishment is how ably Amenabar seamlessly blends so many diverse elements together without ever feeling out of place. We can see influences dating back to Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Phantom of the Opera, but Open Your Eyes really belongs in the realm of such films as Dark City, The Truman Show, Mulholland Drive and even Inception. Amenabar’s primary concern is bridging the gap between perception and reality. In using several conventional narrative techniques such as flashbacks, dream sequences, and non-linear editing, Amenabar escalates the tension and builds upon our frustration in attempting to unravel the serpentine scheme. Every passing moment and each new revelation adds an additional layer of bewilderment that will have most audiences scratching their heads.
Open Your Eyes is not a perfect film. The film’s final reel takes us into an artificial construction that attempts to tie the story’s threads together a little too neatly. There’s nothing more frustrating than having such a promising narrative unfold in a brief five-minute explanation that feels far removed from the effective atmosphere that preceded it. Another drawback is how Amenábar doesn’t quite dive deep enough into Cesar’s mind when exploring his distraught vision of reality. While César’s social life is made obvious, the film never develops his thoughts, his emotions or his past – forgive the pun, but it only goes skin deep. We only begun to scratch the complexity of his character.
Perhaps the most arresting aspect of Open Your Eyes is the stunning cinematography, which cites the best of Hitchcock. Amenabar wisely opts to keep César’s disfigurement mostly in shadows and in reflections, giving the film much of its force by mounting a sense of terror. Much like César’s emotionless mask, Amenábar’s distinctively visual chilly style mirrors his empty life, via a crowded discotheque that inexplicably falls silent or a drunken state that leaves Caesar head first in the city’s empty sidewalks. Camera and framing is everything here, and for that Eyes deserves high praise.
Much credit is also due to Eduardo Noriega, who spends much of the film behind a mask or under heavy makeup. Yet the actor still manages to effectively convey Cesar’s torment and confusion. Penelope Cruz also delivers a memorable performance, essaying Sofia as an additional mystery. While she can be beautiful and sexy, she occasionally exhibits characteristics – a certain coldness and distance – and Cruz is successful because she makes Sofia believable, rather than just a plot device.
Despite its dark themes, Amenabar isn’t only interested in showing horrifying images. There are moments of beauty and moments of hope. Open Your Eyes is a study of deception, living in the past not the present, and not accepting life’s misfortunes. Despite its disappointing ending, Eyes challenges us to see through the disguises of the world we live in.
– Ricky D