Best remembered for the classic The Spirit of Beehive (1973), Spanish director Victor Erice delivers just his fourth feature film at the ripe age of 82. He further directed El Sur in 1983 and The Quince Tree Sun in 1992. He also made an experimental documentary with the late Abbas Kiarostami in 2006, entitled Erice – Kiarostami: Correspondence. While Erice may not be remembered for his directorial prolificness, his meditative tone and exquisite visual flair remain immediately recognisable. Close Your Eyes will disappoint neither old fans nor younger film-lovers unfamiliar with his work.
This extremely long (at 169 minutes), slow-burn psychological drama starts in the 1990s, as film director Miguel Garay (Manolo Solo) makes a movie entitled Triste Roy. In the film-within-the-film, a French king tasks a Spanish leftist with finding his long-missing half-Chinese daughter; a relatively unknown actor called Julio Arenas (Jose Coronado) is in the lead. Miguel and Julio are old friends, sharing a past in the navy and also in prison. That was only Miguel’s second film and Julio’s very last, as the actor goes missing soon after. Fast-forward 20 years. Miguel hasn’t made any further films since, and the mystery of Julio’s disappearance remains unsolved. The metafictional element seems to extend to the octogenarian director of Close Your Eyes, who also took a decades-long break from the film world.
A television show decides decides to dig in and investigate the peculiar case, conducting intrusive interview with Miguel and other people who knew Julio. Some believe that the man committed suicide, other think that he was murdered, and someone speculates that he may be on the run from a jealous cuckold (the charming man seemed to have philandering inclination). Julio left a daughter behind, a timid woman with very sad eyes called Ana (Ana Torrent). The problem is that Ana barely remembers her father because he was very absent throughout her life. The only present he ever gave his daughter was through Santa Claus. Her shake emotional attachment and unreliable memories are only partly helpful in this informal investigation.
Closing your eyes is a deeply subversive gesture. It allows us to recreate the reality that’s right in front of our eyes at our own accord and convenience. It allows our imagination to twist orthodoxies, debase memories and reconstruct visuals. This effortless gesture (even people in vegetative state can perform it) is empowering, relaying decision-making to those who really matter (the individual in charge). If you don’t want to see something, you simply let your eyelids gently collapse. In one of the film’s most crucial scenes, Ana opts closes her eyes. Erice does not illustrate his character’s imagination, leaving viewers instead to speculate whether it was fear or hope that prevailed in her eyes-wide-shut reality.
A very unexpected twist in the final third of the film throws the story in an entirely new direction. Cinema, memories and recognition abilities become equally deceptive. A superb closure that both celebrates and deconstructs the act of cinema-going. And a glimmer os hope in an otherwise gloomy tale of loss and grief.
Close your Eyes premiered at the Donostia Award Screenings section of the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. A must watch. Incidentally, Erice was born in the Basque country (the region of Spain where the Festival takes place), but moved to Madrid at the age of 17 (where he still lives). The UK premiere takes place in October as part of the 67th BFI London Film Festival. Also showing in the Spotlight: Spanish High Five section of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, and in the 41st Torino Film Festival.