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Saturday, July 17, 1999

Slave to the puppet-master's whim

If there ever was a school that taught you how to dream, "Abres los Ojos (Open Your Eyes)" will be required viewing for a course called Advanced Nightmare, Honor Students Only.

Directed by Spain's Alejandro Amenabar, "Abres" is ahighly stylized labyrinth, made up of the images that tear through the mind in that split second before awakening -- the crazy hodgepodge of fear and violence, sex and intrigue from which one is liberated with a jolt and a thankful, "Oh God, it's only a dream."

For protagonist Cesar (Eduardo Noriega) this moment of deliverance never arrives. Catapulted into a sea of experiences and images too painful to bear, Cesar keeps wishing it was a dream and that at any minute the alarm clock will ride him into reality as he knows it. The reality of being young, handsome and filthy rich, never seen with the same woman twice.

But his last conquest, Nuria (Najwa Nimri), had proved to be awkward. Not only does Nuria pester him with her whispered and seductive declarations of true love, she stalks him outside the apartment of his new trophy girlfriend, Sofia (Penelope Cruz). Cesar cannot refuse when she invites him into her car. But what was supposed to be a sentimental drive turns into a tragedy: Nuria drives over a cliff and is killed. Cesar survives, but with permanent facial injuries.

Months later, a horribly disfigured Cesar attempts to pick up where he had left off with Sofia, but she turns a cold shoulder. Even his best friend Pelayo (Fele Matinez) walks away.

Just when Cesar thinks he cannot sink any lower, the tables turn and his fortune is changed miraculously. Sofia comes back, begging forgiveness. A team of Europe's most gifted plastic surgeons restore his former good looks. Cesar is delirious with happiness. But one night Sofia disappears from his bed and in her place is Nuria, who claims with disarming innocence that she is actually Sofia.

Cesar begins to suspect a major conspiracy, but cannot figure out what this could be. In the meantime, he desperately searches for Sofia, but inevitably runs into the diabolical Nuria. And his smashed face keeps haunting him so much that he can no longer look into the mirror, and instead goes around with a plastic mask.

This murky confusion of dream and reality is mindful of say, "Total Recall," or the darker "Jacob's Ladder." However, in the case of these two films there were always those who dreamed and those who watched the dreamer dream. In "Abres" that boundary slips away -- everyone turns out to be dreaming, there are no outsiders. In the end, "Abres" suggests that reality never existed in the first place.

Said Amenabar in an interview last year, "People often ask what life is, but I want to ask them if they're really living at all. Are we not in fact, characters in our own or someone else's dream?"

It's a typical question of a film director, whose profession is about dreaming people up and creating their lives, all in accordance to a grand scheme hatched inside his head. I could see Amenabar describing the finer points of the story during a staff meeting. I could see him using a white board and a pointer. Probably everyone was impressed. Probably they all went out for drinks afterward. It's a good thing movie characters can't jump out of the screen, because Cesar surely has a right to hotfoot it out of there and apply a blunt instrument to Amenabar's head.

That's how good Amenabar is: cold and precise and not missing a single step. It's a terrible thing for a character to be trapped inside the mind of such a director, there's just no escape. Time and again Cesar wakes up, thinking he has shaken off the nightmare, when it comes roaring back like an enraged bull, and he the helpless, capeless matador.

Add to that the poisonous soundtrack, which includes Massive Attack, Amphetamine Discharge and Sneaker Pimps. When Cesar clutches his hair in both hands and walks around the room wailing with confused terror, you want to weep and tell Amenabar to stop it, enough already.

But the dream continues. And continues.

Man, with movies like this, who needs drugs? Apparently, Hollywood lined up en masse for the remake rights and in the end, it went to Tom Cruise. I don't think he'll get half the sympathy votes Noriega got, though. A disfigured Tom Cruise cold-shouldered by his girlfriend? Is that a dream come true or what?

"Abres los Ojos" opens today at the Cine Vivant in Roppongi. English subtitled version plays every Friday. For more information, call (03) 3403-6061.

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