Open Your Eyes (Spain, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Of all the films that emerged from the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, none caused me to ponder, wonder, and puzzle more than Alejandro Amenabar's sophomore feature, Open Your Eyes. Film of this intelligence, audacity, and complexity come along so rarely that it's mandatory to cry out their arrival. Saving Private Ryan may be the best movie I saw in 1998, but Open Your Eyes was the most original. (Note: North American distribution was delayed from the originally planned October 1998 to April 1999.) It is a piece of cinema that will have viewers guessing and questioning from beginning to end.

Open Your Eyes touches on and passes through so many genres that it transcends categorization. At one moment, it's a melodrama. At another, it's a romance. Then film noir. Then a cautionary tale. Then a morality play. Then science fiction. Perhaps the most amazing thing is how ably and seamlessly Amenabar blends so many diverse elements together. He uses conventional narrative techniques -- flashbacks, dream sequences, and scenes in the "present" -- but the way in which he pieces them together gives us the sense that we, along with the protagonist, are unraveling a serpentine scheme. With every passing moment and each new revelation, we have the feeling that, even when the puzzle is complete, many questions will remain unanswered.

Our guide through the labyrinth of Open Your Eyes is Cesar (Eduardo Noriega), a wealthy, self-centered, handsome dilettante who prides himself on never sleeping with the same woman twice. When his friend, Pelayo (Fele Martinez), makes the mistake of introducing Cesar to his current girlfriend, Sofia (Penelope Cruz), trouble begins brewing. Cesar, smitten by Sofia and perhaps in love for the first time in his life, sets out to lure her away from Pelayo. For her part, Sofia appears willing to succumb to Cesar's advances -- until tragedy strikes. Nuria (Najwa Nimri), a woman with whom Cesar enjoyed a brief fling, becomes mad with jealousy when Cesar rejects her. While they are in a car together, Nuria accelerates to a reckless speed, then crashes the vehicle, killing herself and seriously injuring Cesar.

He lives, but at a price: his good looks are gone, marred beyond surgical repair. To avoid frightening those around him, Cesar must hide his features behind an emotionless mask. The next time he meets Sofia, she is cold and distant. However, after spending a night in a drunken stupor on the street, Cesar finds that things are looking up. Sofia, once again gentle and loving, re-enters his life. The doctors offer hope that a new technique might allow his face to be healed. But Cesar is starting to experience moments of blinding, irrational rage, and he rightly suspects that all is not as it seems.

I will not reveal any more. Suffice it to say that the above summary only begins to peel away the onion-like layers of Open Your Eyes' plot. The film is full of twists that, when looked upon in hindsight, seem perfectly plausible (at least within Amenabar's universe). I'm not one who is easily surprised by narrative turns, but this movie took me unawares on at least two occasions. Just to sort out everything, it almost demands a second viewing, and, unlike in many twice-watched noir thrillers, gaping logic holes do not open up. Open Your Eyes maintains a state of remarkable internal consistency.

So what's it all about? One could easily view Open Your Eyes as a study of dualities. Nightmares versus reality. Memories of the past versus actions in the present. Knowledge versus ignorance. Beauty versus ugliness. Madness versus sanity. All of these elements come into play as we try to piece together what's happening to Cesar. We can make connections to Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Phantom of the Opera. Fundamentally, Open Your Eyes is concerned with one issue: the vast gulf between perception and reality. When Cesar is handsome on the outside, he is rotten within. But, when the humiliation of losing his physical beauty changes him, circumstances are reversed. (Or are they?) Yet, even at that point, we have only begun to scratch the complexity of the issue, and Amenabar forces us to go much deeper.

The performances of the two leads are extraordinary. Noriega, who is spends much of the film behind a mask or under heavy makeup, still manages to effectively convey Cesar's torment and confusion in a way that forms a bond between the character and the audience. Penelope Cruz (Belle Epoque) fashions Sofia as an enigma. Always beautiful and sexy, she can be cold and cruel or warm and comforting. Cruz is successful because she makes Sofia a believable, sympathetic person and not just a necessity of the plot.

Open Your Eyes exists in a nexus formed by the likes of Dark City, The Game, The Truman Show, and Total Recall. Elements of all four films can be uncovered in this one, especially in the way it toys with our perceptions and expectations. (I saw Open Your Eyes for the first time at Sundance, shortly before viewing Dark City, and was amazed at some of the similarities in theme and content). Amenabar, a 25 year-old who burst onto the international scene in 1996 with Tesis, a thriller that explores the line between real and fake violence, has proven that the success of his first movie was no fluke. Open Your Eyes was a huge hit in Spain when it opened there in December 1997, and, while it will not get the kind of wide release necessary to make a big splash in this country, those who see it will not quickly forget the experience.

Open Your Eyes (Spain, 1997)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 1999-04-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: English subtitled Spanish
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1