“It’s not important what you see, but what I see. It’s my dream.”
Everyone seems to know Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (2001), starring Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz, but what about the original 1997 thriller film Open Your Eyes (Spanish: Abre los ojos)? The Spanish/French/Italian co-production was critically acclaimed back in the day, but Alejandro Amenábar’s second directorial attempt remains, more than twenty years later, a paradigm of a melting pot for reality and dreams, vanity and the psyche.
Cesar (Eduardo Noriega) is living the life as a successful young bachelor in Madrid. Vain to the bone of his socialite existence, Cesar meets the love of his life – and his best friend’s love interest – Sofia (Penelope Cruz), at his birthday party. Right after clicking with her and spending the night at her place, Cesar’s obsessively jealous former fling Nuria (Najwa Nimri) gets him involved in a car accident that has irreparable consequences.
During his arduous medical recovery, Kafkaesque dreams haunt him to the point of madness. Reality shatters under the weight of a broken mind, unable to accept the loss of what used to be and the prospect of happiness by Sofia’s side. Those fragments shape his new, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde self into a murder suspect waiting for trial in a psychiatric ward.
In his efforts to prove his innocence, Cesar tries to reconstruct his memories and interpret his dreams with the help of psychiatrist Antonio (Chete Lera). A phantom mask, the obscure figure of Duvernois (Gérard Barray) and the name of Eli or Ally will become his last obstacles in bringing down the barriers of his own mind.
After his breakthrough Tesis (1996), and before his more Hollywood-stylised The Others (2001), Amenábar’s ambitious project cannot be easily categorised, but splendidly delivers the juxtaposition of reality and perception, appearance and acceptance. Often compared to The Matrix or Dark City (both released in 1999) for its themes and scenes, elements of Hitchcock’s filmmaking are also to be detected throughout the film. An example of this would be showing Sofia leaving her room just like Kim Novak did in Vertigo (1958). It is said, after all, that the Spanish-Chilean director had Penelope Cruz study Vertigo before shooting started.
Eduardo Noriega delivers his complex character in such a thorough way, that the audience identifies with him right from the very start – in the iconic opening scene of him running through the desolated Gran Via. The feeling of doubt, and constantly missing a crucial piece of the puzzle, makes the entirety of the film suspenseful and unpredictable. Pictures and paintings change as our perception of the protagonist shifts. Penelope Cruz is far more convincing here than when she reprised her role in the American adaptation.
Abre los Ojos acts as a warning, calling viewers to open their eyes to the dangerous webs of illusion, obsession, sexual dreams, failed relationships and fear. A condemnation of vanity and corruption, but an ode to freeing self-realisation, this film is a must-see for anyone looking for deeper meanings and serious mind-games.
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