Reality Is . . . (Fill in the Blank)

From Spain, a movie that questions the relationship between dreams and reality, truth and illusion.

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We seem to be in the middle of one of those thematic blitzes that happens every now and then in the film world. Last year there was Dark City and The Truman Show; this year, so far, there have been EdTV, The Matrix, eXistenZ, and the Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin film The Thirteenth Floor. And currently popping up among these studio projects is Open Your Eyes, a modest Spanish film that manages to provocatively address the same issues with a minimum of money and special effects.

Open Your Eyes begins with a woman's voice softly chanting the title over the sleeping figure of handsome young Cesar (Eduardo Noriega). He wakes up, gets dressed, and goes out, but there is no one on the streets, and the lights are all stuck on green. He begins to panic when, suddenly, he sits up in bed. It was all a dream.

With this sequence, director/co-writer Alejandro Amenabar gives us fair warning: How do we know the next scene — or the rest of the film — isn't another dream? By extension, how do we know we're not really dreaming that a film called Open Your Eyes exists and that we're watching it? We don't.

We hear the disembodied voice of a psychiatrist (Chete Lera) asking Cesar to tell him his story once again, and this story is not necessarily to be trusted either. Cesar, we learn, has lived a charmed life: He's independently wealthy and irresistible to women. If he has a problem, it's that he's too irresistible. He has spent a night or two with Nuria (Najwa Nimri), who doesn't seem to be able to let go. While he's at a party trying to pick up Sofia (Penelope Cruz) — Cesar is cad enough not to care that she's the date of his best friend, Pelayo (Fele Martinez) — the obsessed Nuria stalks him. Cesar seems to be genuinely falling in love with Sofia, but his charmed life is about to become uncharmed: An auto accident soon kills Nuria and leaves Cesar horribly disfigured.

Having previously been so handsome that he never needed to develop a personality or interests, he now finds himself utterly lost. He tries to start up with Sofia again, but his bitterness — rather than his disfigurement — drives her away. Then suddenly the doctors decide they can fix his face — he is miraculously back to normal and back with Sofia. Or is he? His life starts to make no sense. His face switches between ugly and handsome; Sofia turns into Nuria. Nothing is certain. It's no plot spoiler to say that at least some of this is unreal. But what? And how much?

Like Dark City, The Matrix, and most of the others of this metaphysical thriller subgenre, this clever and unsettling film owes a lot to the works of the brilliant and prolific science-fiction author Philip K. Dick. Dick was hardly the first to mine this turf, but he did so with a thoroughness and ingenuity that makes him the godfather of this entire generation of filmmakers.

If Dark City manifested its issues in sci-fi terms and The Matrix added Hong Kong action-film style to that mix, Open Your Eyes takes a different approach. Its visual style — whether by budget, choice, or both — is far more muted. It makes its points the old-fashioned way — through editing and lighting. This is not a bad thing. Two of the greatest films of this sort — Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Je T'aime, Je T'aime (1968) — scrambled our notions of reality through the innovative manipulation of those basic elements of film language. (Through some tragic quirk of distribution, Je T'aime, Je T'aime doesn't seem to have ever appeared in any video format or to have screened in the U.S. in at least two decades. All the sadder, since memory suggests it was not only ahead of its time but ahead of today's films; Resnais employed a quick, jagged repetition of footage in a manner analogous to hip-hop DJs.)

Amenabar makes clear reference to at least one of his prime inspirations — Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). In addition to several smaller allusions, one central scene is a close restaging of one of Vertigo's most memorable moments. Amenabar may be no Hitchcock, but this is only his second feature, and not even Hitchcock was Hitchcock early in his career. Open Your Eyes is so intriguing and judiciously controlled that there's every reason to imagine that Amenabar could develop into a major figure.

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote an essay called "Kafka and His Precursors," in which he wryly suggested that a writer's greatest influences may well be subsequent writers — since a contemporary reader's response to a classic is necessarily affected by his knowledge of those later writers. In that manner, Open Your Eyes suggests ways to read Vertigo that may not have been apparent to most people, prior to the later film's release. Amenabar's take on Hitchcock could help us find new, richer ways of looking at the old master's films.

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