Director: Alejandro Amenábar
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The questions of identity and the nature of reality have penetrated deep into the world zeitgeist in the past 10–15 years, if we are to judge by the movies that have been made. From the visually dazzling juvenile entertainments like the Matrix films and genre-bending films by Quentin Tarantino to perceptually distorted horror films like Identity, it seems that the new generation is trying to figure out who they are in the same way my generation used drug movies, genre benders of the various New Waves around the world, and perceptually demented horror films to mirror our confusion. The year 1997 saw the release of two superior examples of this class of identity thrillers—the American independent film Habit and ace Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes.
In both films, the main characters are men in their 20s dealing with loss. Habit’s Sam is grieving the death of a father he barely knew and a relationship that has ended. César (Eduardo Noriega), the main character in Open Your Eyes, is grappling with a drastic change in his body. Both men are plagued by vampiric women and a hallucinatory existence that keep them separated from ordinary existence.
The film opens onto a black screen with a woman’s voice gently urging, “Open your eyes. Open your eyes.” An alarm sounds, waking a young man. We see his naked back as his outstretched arm silences the alarm. We next see him staring drowsily at himself in the mirror. We see him through frosted glass as he showers. Then, his hand wipes away the steam on the mirror as he regards himself again. Now dressed, he races down the stairs of his exquisite, modern home and out the door. He drives his vintage VW bug through the streets of Madrid and notices that absence of people. He pulls over, gets out of his car, and wanders into one of the city’s main drags. He is the only person there.
After this stunning, empty cityscape, the film repeats the same sequence as the opening credits roll and extends it. This time, the streets are abuzz with life. The young man, César, stops on street corner to pick up his best friend Pelayo (Fele Martinez). “You own three cars. Why do we always have to drive in this piece of junk?” asks Pelayo. César is an orphan made rich by his inheritance of his family’s catering business. Pelayo complains that César‘s extraordinary good looks and money help him get any woman he wants, that he basically leads a charmed life, doing exactly as he pleases. The pair play a hard game of racketball. After one intense point, the scene shifts. César, sitting on the floor with his head down, is being questioned by Antonio (Chete Lera), a psychiatrist at the prison for the criminally insane where César is being held. César has killed someone, and Antonio is trying to determine if he was legally insane when he committed the crime. Antonio is drawn to helping César, who hides his face behind a mask.
Slowly, the events leading to César’s incarceration are revealed. César is a playboy who never sees a woman more than twice. This doesn’t sit well with his latest conquest, Nuria (Najwa Nimri). She crashes a birthday party César is throwing for himself. To get away from her, he begins to chat up Sofia (Penélope Cruz), the beautiful woman Pelayo has brought to the party as his date. César tells her he is in catering; she says she’s an actress. “I don’t like actors,” says César. “They’re so skilled at hiding their true feelings.” Nonetheless, César begins his seduction of Sofia—much to Pelayo’s disgust. They leave the party and go to her place. César looks at pictures of a happy and clowning Sofia surrounded by friends and loved ones; he’s touched. They sketch pictures of each other. Sofia’s picture is a caricature that shows César surrounded by expensive cars and bags of money. He’s offended by it, then shows her the beautiful sketch of her he has done. They watch TV, on which a man is being interviewed about cryostasis. It is light when he finally leaves her apartment, but their night has been a chaste one.
He is greeted on the street by Nuria, who convinces him to let her drive him home. Jealous, she accuses César of sleeping with Sofia. She starts speeding and then asks César if he believes in god. She intentionally plunges off the road and down an embankment. The car hits a solid wall and crumples. The horrific crash kills Nuria and grossly disfigures César. Surgeons work on his face to allow him to breathe and talk normally, and they give him the good news that he has suffered no long-term neurological impairment. But they can do nothing to rescue his face. He is outraged. They provide him with a mask, which they only offer in cases of “extreme rejection” of their cosmetic efforts. César is shunned, particularly by Sofia. He confronts her in the park where she earns extra change as a mime/statue. She agrees to meet him at a nightclub, but when he arrives, he finds Pelayo is there at Sofia’s request to provide a buffer between her and César. César gets drunk and passes out on the street.
Luckily for César, Sofia has a change of heart. She finds him in the street in the morning, kisses his disfigured face, and tells him she loves him. A few months later, the doctors call and say they have new, experimental technology that could restore his face. About a month after the surgery, Sofia approaches César, who is sitting in a chair with plastic molds on his face. She pulls them off one by one to reveal César as he looked before the accident. They make love in a scene of touching beauty. It is then that César’s mind begins to play tricks with him in scenes of confusion and terror, with Nuria and the man from the cryostasis commercial popping up where they are not expected, and César’s appearance randomly changing from gruesome to woosome and back again.
Amenábar’s nightmarish thriller weaves us through César’s experience, confusing us along with him, and providing Antonio as our guide through César’s dreams and experience every bit as much as he is one for César. The cinematography and art direction of brothers Hans Burman and Wolfgang Burmann are flawless. I was particularly struck by the nightclub scene; it’s bluish glow a ghostly metaphor for the unconscious, it quite reminded me of another nightclub in another movie in part about madness—Sean Penn’s The Pledge. César’s despair over his change in appearance is so profound that we realize that he is lost to himself without his good looks. Indeed, his struggle has larger implications for the surfaces of life we all maintain like a smooth, but fragile layer of skin. Would the people in our lives be willing to accept us if our status changed drastically? Were our existential masks to crack, we might go into the self-annihilating despair César experienced.
Eduardo Noriega is one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen; he’s also one of the best actors around. He knows how to radiate confidence as a birthright and anger at his loss of control in all its many shades. Those who may first have been introduced to Penélope Cruz in Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise’s remake of this film, will see how good an actress she really is when able to use her native language. She has since developed more as an actress in English, but I still prefer her work in Spanish. Chete Lera is a wonderfully compassionate psychiatrist whose fate is unbelievably heartbreaking.
Slowly, the film reveals its secrets in ways that any thriller/scifi fans will love. The ending is both shocking and satisfying as it returns to César control of his life. The film’s opening is repeated at its end, after we, too, have opened our eyes. l