What’s it about? César is handsome, superficial and rich. Once he meets drama student Sofía, he’s also head over heels in love. But fate sticks out a foot to trip him up when a former flame, Nuria, tries to kill him, leaving him with a bruised ego and a severely disfigured face. He’s depressed and isolated until a seemingly miraculous surgery restores his face. But then things start getting weird: the supposedly dead Nuria suddenly appears, claiming to be Sofía.
Sounds a bit Hitchcockian… It is. Up-and-coming Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar wanted to pay homage to the Master of Suspense, borrowing his themes of melding identities and obsessive romance. At one point, in a clear nod to Hitch’s Vertigo (1958), Nuria and Sofía seem to merge together, with César unable to distinguish one woman from another. César’s creepy white mask is also reminiscent of Georges Franju’s classic scalpel horror Eyes without a Face (1960).
What else is Amenábar known for? He’d just made his debut with the campus-set thriller Thesis (1996), and bigger things were ahead. He’d go on to massive worldwide success with the Nicole Kidman haunted-house horror The Others (2001) and bagged the Oscar for best foreign language film for The Sea Inside (2004).
Would I recognise anyone in it? Penélope Cruz, for starters. She plays Sofia, and was already well en route to international superstardom following her explosive turn in Jamón, Jamón (1992) and the Oscar-winner Belle Époque (1992). She stars alongside Eduardo Noriega, who’d also been in Thesis and was becoming a superstar of 90s Spanish cinema.
In fact, Open Your Eyes offers an ensemble of an extremely talented generation of Spanish actors. In the role of Nuria we get Najwa Nimri, an iconic actor-singer-artist and key figure of the 90s, and as César’s insecure best friend there’s Fele Martínez. These two would go on to star together in Julio Medem’s romantic drama Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998).
Where did the idea come from? Amenábar and his regular co-writer Mateo Gil (they’d written Tesis together and would go on to co-write The Sea Inside too) were inspired by a news article about cryonics and wanted to explore it. Gil would return to this theme later in his career with Realive (2016).
So what’s so special about it? Although Amenábar has since declared this to be his worst film, it’s a delightfully tense and accomplished sci-fi that has great fun playing around with levels of reality. And it all comes with a delicious 90s aesthetic. César and Sofía’s apartments, everyone’s outfits, the haircuts, the trip-hop soundtrack – everything is a perfect capsule of the time; a snapshot of what was cool and what was nerdy. It also shows us around a gorgeous Madrid, with an impressive series of shots in the middle of the city’s Gran Via showing it completely deserted.
Are all Spanish genre films like this? Yes and no. Spanish cinema has an incredibly rich history with horror and sci-fi (Segundo de Chomón, one of the pioneers of silent cinema, played around with horror in his work). In the 90s, a new generation of filmmakers (spearheaded by Amenábar and Álex de la Iglesia) revitalised genre across thrillers, sci-fi and horror, achieving commercial and critical success.
Didn’t Cameron Crowe remake it? He did, just four years later. Vanilla Sky had Tom Cruise in the Noriega role and Penélope Cruz reprising her character of Sofia. But apart from the title change and a switch from Madrid to New York, the remake added little to the story aside from star power. It lacked any real personality. If you can get over the one-inch barrier of subtitles, Open Your Eyes is resoundingly superior – the work of a talented director on the brink of exploding onto the international film scene.
What should I watch next? If you enjoy your sci-fi of the Mediterranean variety, Álex de la Iglesia’s Acción mutante (1993) is set in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by good-looking people, while Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (2007) is a mind-bending time-loop sci-fi set in the Spanish countryside. More recently, The Platform (2019) garnered good reviews from critics and has been seen widely since it hit Netflix earlier this year.