Close Your Eyes: a triumphant return for Víctor Erice

The Spanish auteur’s first feature in 30 years deals with the disappearance of a fictional actor who vanished during a film shoot, exploring themes of loss, grief and the exquisite power of cinema.

26 May 2023

By Leigh Singer

Manolo Solo as Miguel Garay in Close Your Eyes (2023)Manolo Solo as Miguel Garay in Close Your Eyes (2023) © Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival 2023
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. 

Few filmmakers have such a hold on cineastes with such a slim body of work (three features, including one documentary, and a handful of acclaimed shorts) as Spain’s Víctor Erice. Now, 50 years since his beloved, full-length debut The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and thirty years since his last, The Quince Tree Sun (1992), comes a fourth feature that’s both a long-awaited return for the eighty-two-year-old director, a career summation and an exquisite reckoning of cinema’s power to haunt and enchant, to bring the physically or spiritually dead back to life.

The carefully composed opening sequence of Close Your Eyes feels like Erice has never been away. Daylight gradually fills a shadowy interior, just like the opening to 1983’s El Sur. Characters speak in hushed tones about splintered families and father-daughter recriminations reminiscent of Beehive, even if they reference the country’s Franco dictatorship in a more direct way than that film’s dreamlike allegory.

It’s soon revealed, however, that this both is, and isn’t, Close Your Eyes per se. We’re actually watching the opening scene to the film-within-the-film, The Farewell Gaze, set in 1947 but shot, then discarded, in 1990 when its charismatic leading man Julio Arenas (Jose Coronado) suddenly and mysteriously disappeared early in the shoot, never to be seen again. This film’s director and Arenas’s best friend, Miguel Garay (Manolo Solo), never made another feature. In Erice’s film’s present day of 2012, Garay has been contacted by the producers of true crime-style television show Unresolved Cases. They plan to profile the Arenas mystery, and so want to interview Garay and gather as much evidence as they can, pulling the director back into traumatic events from his past.

To reveal where all this ends up, would be to deny viewers the pleasures of what becomes a surprisingly plot-driven narrative from Erice and co-writer Michel Gaztambide. Suffice it to say that memory, loss and the moving image feature heavily. Besides, as with his previous work, the director is far more focused on evoking moods and questions, many of which seem to have an at least partial autobiographical slant. The Farewell Gaze, or as it’s known by its would-be makers, “the film that never existed”, is Garay’s second feature. Erice’s own sophomore effort, El Sur, was released to great acclaim but has often been talked of as a compromised version, based on only half the screenplay and source novel when funding was pulled mid-shoot.

When pondering what drove Arenas to vanish, Garay’s old friend and film editor Max (Mario Pardo) speculates whether Arenas “couldn’t handle the supreme issue: getting old.” At this stage of his life and career, it’s surely something with which Erice himself grapples. For Beehive devotees, there’s something hugely moving about seeing its child lead, Ana Torrent, playing Arenas’s abandoned adult daughter, reunite with her first-ever director as a fifty-something year-old experienced actor. When her character here echoes a key line of dialogue from Beehive, time both collapses and spans a half-century in a heartrending instant.

José Coronado as Julio Arenas in Close Your Eyes (2023)
José Coronado as Julio Arenas in Close Your Eyes (2023)

The unfussy elegance of Erice’s filmmaking remains as fresh and clear as ever. It’s a contemplative style, allowing his superb cast time and space, regularly fading to black between scenes. More than once, songs sung and shared between characters emotionally transport them to a precious time in their past, while Federico Jusid’s plaintive piano and strings-led score subtly guides the narrative beats.

It’s a film, then, made by, and about, true believers in the transcendent potential of sound and image. At one point, Garay salvages a small flipbook depicting the iconic Lumiere Brothers’ 1896 L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat  from a storage unit. And when he proposes what might have happened the night his friend disappeared to his and Arenas’s ex-girlfriend Lola (Soledad Vilamil), it’s re-enacted by Garay (and Erice) as if it were a thriller flashback, leading Lola to tease him as “still a film geek!”

Still, this isn’t blind cinephile love. The climax, set in a closed down, small town cinema, is no simplistic paean to ‘the magic of the movies.’ In fact, editor Max gruffly jokes that “miracles in movies haven’t existed since [Carl Theodor] Dreyer died!” And yet Erice has dreamed in light an extraordinary ambition for what film, certainly his films, can strive for. As his characters gaze up at the screen, and out, perhaps for the final time, at their audience, it’s hard to envisage a more emotionally overwhelming farewell, if that’s what Close Your Eyes becomes, from a vital, too-often missing, force in world cinema.

My father the hero: Víctor Erice’s El sur

Despite having had its funding pulled and its production halted 48 days into an 81-day shoot, Erice’s tantalising, incomplete 1983 film is still regarded by many as a masterpiece, telling the tale of a young girl’s relationship with her secretive, emotionally distant father.

By Mar Diestro-Dópido

My father the hero: Víctor Erice’s El sur

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