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Open Your Eyes

Watch carefully!

By Roy Rodenstein

1997, 1 hr 57 min

In Spanish, with English subtitles

Directed by Alejandro Amenabar

Written by Alejandro Amenabar, Mateo Gil

With Eduardo Noriega, Penelope Cruz, Chete Lera, Fele Martinez, and Najwa Nimri

A routine party is the beginning of a chilling trip for Cesar. One girl is after him, he goes after another, and before he knows it, very disturbing things are afoot. Open Your Eyes, the second film from 25-year-old Alejandro Amenabar, combines romance with a bit of horror, a heavy dose of psychological thriller, and a splotch of sci-fi into an unusual treat. Rather than satisfied, it leaves you slightly on edge.

Cesar (Eduardo Noriega) is a handsome devil, all boyish charm with a very shy act to cover his self-assuredness. Indeed, he’s reputed to never sleep with the same woman twice, so naturally when Nuria (Najwa Nimri) tries to bend that rule Cesar declines not so politely. Instead he hides behind Sofia (Penelope Cruz), the girl his best friend, Pelayo, came to the party with.

Lucky not only with beauty, Cesar is also quite rich. He has three cars, but Pelayo (Fele Martinez) complains that Cesar only uses the cheap old VW bug to pick him up on the way to racquetball. Is this fact a humorous note, or does it point to a serious character flaw in Cesar? Later, at the party, he ends up monopolizing Sofia’s attention, to Pelayo’s disgust. When Sofia tells Cesar that if he were a loyal friend he would not try to sleep with her, Cesar replies that he is indeed a loyal friend, and therefore wants to have an affair with Sofia but be sure to prevent Pelayo from finding out about it. Rebuffed, Cesar regroups to try Sofia another day, and as he leaves her apartment he begins the ride of his life.

Though the plot to Open Your Eyes is dense, to say much more would reveal too much already. On the other hand, the layers of reality that director Amenabar peels away are numerous, and no piece of the puzzle is the whole answer. Delectably unpredictable, the film casts Cesar as a spoiled rich kid and then makes us pity him, as he’s accused of a crime he has no knowledge of and suffers grave disfigurement in an accident. Stuck in a cell, wearing a mask over his grotesque face, Cesar’s only clues are the dreams he keeps having, and boy does he hatedreams!

The first half hour is riveting, with an interesting romantic setup giving way to a most bizarre world of shame and denial. In the cell, a psychologist tries to coax information out of Cesar that could help in his trial for murder. From that point on the film is fairly hit-and-miss, though there are many more hits than misses, to be sure.

The film’s main strengths reside in unaffected acting and sparkling direction. All the leads, from the increasingly desperate psychologist, to Noriega, Cruz and Martinez, are very comfortable even within the strange world the director has placed them in. They do their best to respond as ordinary people to extraordinary situations, as the script pushes them farther and farther. The direction, particularly the cinematography, is solid throughout, with several splendind shots taking advantage of shadows and unusual points of view which always serve a narrative purpose.

Clearly the major triumph of the film is in blending the mundane with the bizarre, and the truly bizarre, with such seamless transitions. In fact, this blending becomes a focal point of the plot itself, as it analyzes a cadre of colossal questions such as how we could really tell a dream from reality, or how we might know whether other people really exist. These are weighty questions and the film cannot befaulted for achieving no answers. Rather, it treats them as invisible boundaries the characters bump into, and emphasizes them enough so that the viewer may think about them on their own.

Unfortunately, not all the strangeness is wholly original. Slightly reminiscent of The Game and Dark City, and made at the same time as these, Open Your Eyes also evokes standard thriller tricks, such as the scary mirror that changes what it shows each time you look. Though the visual direction maintains our interest, the plot lags at such times; the danger of showing incomprehensible things is that the audience may feel no connection to them. Invoking notions from deja-vu to cryogenics to very subtle commentary on guilt and the unconscious, however, the movie has enough freshness and focus in its own right to work as a cohesive whole.

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming, ironically, is in the more mundane setup. Does the audience really care that a spoiled rich kid becomes unattractive and therefore may not be able to steal his best friend’s girlfriend? At times, but at others the concept appears a ludicrous source of conflict. The movie is strongest in suggesting how bizarre the world is, or can become, and in this guise it’s certainly worth watching. The conclusion poses an interesting choice for a character which, given the pace of technology, may become a real choice within a few centuries. Unlike most movies in its genre, the recent smash The Matrix included, Open Your Eyes finally works because it treats its questions about the world not as a springboard to standard film but as questions worth turning over in their own right.