For contemporary filmmakers, virtual reality has been a tremendous boon: It allows them to make a virtueeven a philosophical statementout of narratives that previously would have seemed disjointed or even just goofy. For filmgoers, it’s been considerably less fruitful. The virtual-reality shticks of the recent The Matrix and Existenz are both quite dull, although those films manage to juice their tiresome premises with, respectively, kung fu action and squishy viscera and orifices. Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes has some special effects, too, but the Spanish director and co-writer was clearly working with a more limited budget. The result is a small-cast psychological thriller that pivotseventuallyon a Twilight Zone-style twist.
Open Your Eyes is one of those films that owes much of its effect to chronic confusion, which makes any plot synopsis problematic. So let’s just introduce the principal characters: César (Eduardo Noriega) is a handsome, wealthy young Madrid philanderer who’s dallying with the chic, edgy Nuria (Najwa Nimri), although she’s too possessive for his taste. At his birthday party, César spies beautiful, empathetic acting student Sofia (Pené#lope Cruz, most recently seen in The Hi-Lo Country). Cé#sar is not the sort to be inhibited by the fact that Sofia came to the party with his best friend Pelayo (Fele Martínez), who’s had few successes with women.
As the movie quickly establishes, César has vivid dreams that he can’t always separate from reality. Amená#bar (whose debut film, Tesis, screened last month at the American Film Institute) makes certain that the viewer is kept equally off balance. In addition to dreams and drunkenness, those surrealist standbys, he calls on the usual cinematic tropes of ambiguous identity: masks, mirrors, facial disfigurement, plastic surgery, and women characters who keep turning into each other. Add virtual reality, psychiatry, cryogenics, and a narrative structure that’s as circular as it is linear, and the result is, well, psychedelic.
There are no Day-Glo colors in Open Your Eyes, a film that prefers shadows and twilight both narratively and cinematographically. Still, the movie’s relatively low-tech brand of bewilderment reveals the close kinship between today’s supposedly cutting-edge notions of virtual reality and yesterday’s pot-smoker epiphanies: Like, what if life is all just a dream, man? (No wonder Keanu Reeves clicked in The Matrix, which has not only made $100 million but is also apparently taken very seriously by its fans.) Ask any Buddhist or Platonist: Regarding the world as an illusion doesn’t require a computer, let alone VR goggles.
The film’s title refers both to awaking from dreams and facing psychological reality, but the movie actually shows little interest in the latter. It’s hardly a shock when it turns out that César’s shrink is not the man to lead his patient to the truth. Of course, Amenábar’s vehicle isn’t really going in that direction anyway. Open Your Eyes borrows heavily from the thriller tradition, but it’s less interested in unraveling a mystery than in wrapping itself further in the sweet delirium of disorientation.
“You can’t not go home again” is the moral of Metroland, an excessively unassuming British chamber drama that’s sort of the anti-Velvet Goldmine. The link is made most obvious by the presence of Christian Bale in both films: In Velvet Goldmine, he’s the dissatisfied ’70s kid who uses glam rock as his escape route from the London suburbs; in Metroland, he’s the dissatisfied ’60s kid who surrenders to suburbanism after a few bohemian years in Paris.
Aside from being the title of the Julian Barnes novel from which Adrian Hodges’ script was selectively adapted, “Metroland” refers to that part of London’s northwestern suburbs served by the Metropolitan Line. The environs are typical of middle-class outer Londontoo typical, think the teenage Chris (Bale) and his best mate, Toni (Lee Ross), who are seen occasionally in flashback, plotting their escape. But the bulk of the film (unlike the novel) transpires in 1977, by which time Chris has already married Marion (Emily Watson), had a baby, returned to Metroland, and become a regular Metropolitan Line commuter to a downtown job. Indeed, he’s even planning an illustrated history of travel in London, which very nearly makes him a trainspotter, the all-purpose British boring bourgeois hobbyist.
Toni has continued his adventurous life, writing poetry, traveling to Africa and the United States, and enjoying the sort of freewheeling sex life that Chris can only have dream sequences about. Actually, he has flashbacks, too, since he did live in Paris in the late ’60s, where he had a liberating affair with the impulsive, très moderne Annick (Elsa Zylberstein). That relationship ended, however, after he met Marion, the sort of proudly middle-class woman who wins a young rebel’s heart by lampooning his outsider pretensions. (See the much better SLC Punk! for an ’80s variation on this romantic gambit.)
Chris is the sort of guy who can’t locate his own feelings, so he needs women to chart his life. It’s Annick who tells him he’s in love with Marion when he insists he isn’t, and she effectively turns his life over to the custody of her English rival. The only obstacle to this neat matriarchal succession is Toni, who arrives from time to time to get Chris drunk or stoned and introduce him to new cultural trends. In 1977, of course, it’s punk, in the form of a much-too-old band that rages, “Destroy the hoi polloi!” Given the spirit of British punk, the group could very well want to destroy the common people, but I think the point of this song is to show that punkers were too dumb to know what “hoi polloi” means.
So much for punk, but that’s not the only youth-culture moment that Metroland disdains. In Paris in 1968, attempting to make a career as a photographer, Chris doesn’t even bother to photograph the student protests that shut down the city. Premarital sex aside, Chris isn’t really interested in the changes that shake Paris and London between 1963 (the year of the film’s earliest scene) and 1977 (the year of its conclusion). Director Philip Saville hardly needed to include the scene where a just-retired commuter (the estimable John Wood) informs Chris that the suburbs are the young man’s fate.
Chris’ futile attempts at another sort of life could have been poignant, but the movie is too stacked against him. Content suburbanite Marion is the film’s strongest presenceplayed by Watson, she’d have to bewhile Chris is dull, Toni is a creep, and that woman who takes off her clothes at a party in an attempt to lure Chris into adultery is just too awful. Metroland is here to tell you that such things just aren’t done. CP