Saturday, September 12, 2009

#69: Open Your Eyes (Alejandro Amenabar, 1997)

When a 35-year-old Tom Cruise saw the Spanish film Open Your Eyes, he looked at the main character - a womanizing, self-centered, spoiled 25-year-old man who inherited a chain restaurant fortune from his dead, rich parents and who is constantly being told by his friends how handsome he is and from his conquests what a tiger he is in the sack - and exclaimed, "It's the part I was born to play, baby." Cruise bought the English-language rights and starred in the Cameron Crowe-directed remake, Vanilla Sky, four years later. The filmmakers changed the character's age to 33 because Cruise was then 39. I haven't seen the remake yet, and though I tend to enjoy Crowe's films about teenagers, I can't picture his sensibilities matching up well with psychological thriller headfucks, and I'm cautious about Cruise in the lead (he can be very good in some roles and oh so very bad in others) and aghast at the wildly inappropriate casting of Cameron Diaz in a key role. Anyway, as an apology or continued expression of goodwill, Cruise also produced director Alejandro Amenabar's English-language debut, The Others, starring his then-wife Nicole Kidman.

Spain's Amenabar started his career as an all-round filmmaking whiz-kid, working as a director, actor, screenwriter, and composer at the tender age of 20. At the time, and for the next five years, he was Spain's youngest working director. This makes me inclined to hate his guts, but I'll get over it. Amenabar works in both Spain and the United States, and though he's mostly made horror films, he's stepped out of the genre twice for the Javier Bardem-starring drama The Sea Inside and the upcoming ancient Egypt costume epic Agora.
Open Your Eyes, Amenabar's second feature and fourth film overall, is an arty psychological thriller with subtle sci-fi undertones and classic horror film imagery. If you want to be crotchety about it, you could say this isn't technically a horror film, but it often looks like one, reminding me of Paul Leni's 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, which looked like a Gothic horror film even though it was an adventure/drama.

The story begins, appropriately enough, with a nightmare. Our womanizing hero Cesar wakes up, gets frustrated that his one-night-stand is still in bed, and meets his best friend for some racquetball. His friend, Pelayo, who would get laid a lot more if he didn't hang out with Cesar, later brings a new girlfriend, Sofia (played by Penelope Cruz in this movie and in the remake), to Cesar's birthday party. Cesar, trying to get away from an old sex buddy, starts working his magic on Sofia while a frustrated Pelayo gets drunk and goes home. Cesar spends the night at Sofia's place, though they don't have sex. The next morning, Cesar gets in an accident that leaves him disfigured, though I'll leave the details of the accident alone to avoid spoilers.

The movie then focuses on Cesar's attempts to reconstruct his disfigured face and his mysterious relationship with Sofia while flashing forward to scenes of a masked Cesar in a criminal asylum talking to a psychiatrist. The film gets stranger, and the boundaries between dreams and real life get blurrier, calling to mind both The Matrix (though it came out two years later) and episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Amenabar's film is not as deep as it thinks it is, and my wife thought we never got to know the characters as well as we should have, though I'm still undecided on that point, but Amenabar handles the dreamlife/waking-life tone skillfully and creates some powerful images, including some shots of Cesar in a nightclub with his creepy mask on the back of his head. Penelope Cruz, who has seemed flat and uncharismatic in English-language films, is vibrant and appealing in her native language. I don't see the towering masterpiece Tom Cruise saw, but I do see a solid, enjoyable, visually interesting little movie that skillfully blends genres.

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