TIFF 2023 | Close Your Eyes (Víctor Erice, Spain) — Centrepiece

By Lawrence Garcia.

Published in Cinema Scope #95 (Summer 2023).

The Cannes Première of Close Your Eyes, Víctor Erice’s first feature since Dream of Light (1992) over three decades ago, was immediately followed by a minor controversy. Conspicuously absent from the film’s screening, Erice published an open letter at El País explaining his reasons for boycotting the festival, namely, a marked lack of communication—and an implicit lack of respect—from Thierry Frémaux and his programming team regarding his film’s inclusion in the Official Selection, not in Competition. In its pro forma response, the festival expressed surprise at Erice’s charges, but these details are worth recounting—not because they are likely to affect Erice’s legacy in the slightest, but rather because they provide a useful contrast to his film’s actual preoccupations. As might be expected, given the presence of Spirit of the Beehive (1973) actor Ana Torrent in a supporting role, Close Your Eyes is a film deeply concerned with the past, with the sort of material facts that accumulate around a film: production details, actor biographies, and, yes, premiere status. Yet Erice is ultimately concerned not only with the passage of time, but also with the sort of perspective (to use Hegel’s famous phrase) that turns a past into a history.

Close Your Eyes opens just after WWII in the environs of a French estate dubbed Triste-le-Roi (“The Sad King”), where a wealthy Spanish-Jewish refugee lives with his faithful Chinese servant. The man receives a visitor, a grizzled Spanish anti-Francoist, whom he hires to seek out his half-Chinese daughter, Qiao Shu. Lost somewhere in China, the girl is to be identified only from a single photograph, and from her ability to perform a theatrical move she learned from her mother: “the Shanghai gesture.” The man’s sole desire is to see her one final time before his approaching death. After some deliberation, the visitor accepts. 

This opening sequence is so texturally appealing in its period recreation, so immediately involving in its narrative particulars, that it comes as a distinct shock when voiceover intrudes, informing us that we have actually been watching the first reel of an unfinished film titled The Farewell Gaze. The production of this film-within-the-film was abandoned in the early ’90s, when its lead actor Julio Arenas (José Coronado), who plays the would-be searcher, suddenly vanished under mysterious, still-unresolved circumstances. The year is now 2012, and Miguel Garay (Manolo Solo), the erstwhile director of The Farewell Gaze and Arenas’ closest friend, is living in quiet seclusion in a modest trailer apartment near the coast, where he fishes, tends to his tomato garden, and makes his living as a novelist of little significant renown, having not shot a reel of film in three decades. When he agrees to participate in a TV program about Arenas’ mysterious disappearance, however, Miguel embarks in search of lost time. He goes to an old storage unit, where the production materials for the film have mouldered for years; he visits his old editor and friend, Max (Mario Pardo), now a celluloid archivist, who kept the opening and closing reels of The Farewell Gaze all this time; he also seeks out his former lover, a singer named Lola (Soledad Villamil), who left him for Arenas. 

These encounters may seem like a poor substitute for the exotic journey promised by the film’s prologue—one may even feel a bit cheated, as if denied a lost masterpiece from another time, perhaps a rediscovered sister film to Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story (1968). But it’s in these outwardly unexciting scenes that Erice’s film accrues its force. Miguel at one point describes The Farewell Gaze as “a classic adventure story”; with Close Your Eyes, Erice effectively asks whether it is possible to make such a film in the present without slipping into anachronism. Can one still make a “classic adventure story” when any such effort will recall, for example, Jacques Tourneur’s Anne of the Indies (1951), Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955), or whichever film-historical points of reference one favours? Is a contemporary adventure movie fated to be, in effect, a reflexive journey into the archive?

These questions echo throughout the film’s patient 169-minute runtime, but they resonate with particular plangency when a scene of Miguel hanging out with his neighbours casually segues into a lovely rendition of “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” from Rio Bravo (1959). Although the straightforwardly nostalgic appeal of this scene inspired a round of spontaneous applause during the film’s Cannes screening, what elevates it beyond pandering cinephilic reference is Erice’s understanding of the artistic burden that such nostalgia comes with. Speculating on the reasons behind his friend’s disappearance, Miguel remarks that Julio “couldn’t handle the supreme issue: getting old.” For Erice, the supreme issue is how to deal with an aging artform—how to make films when the medium has acquired a certain historicity. 

In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, Miguel imagines the night Julio disappeared as a staccato series of dazzling images: a car, headlights on, engulfed in darkness; a man perched on the precipice of a cliff; a pair of waterlogged boots by a craggy rock. This passage is notable not for its narrative content, but for how far removed its rhythms and découpage are from those of the classics Miguel adores, or from his own The Farewell Gaze, for that matter. Indeed, when Miguel unearths a small flipbook depicting the Lumières’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), one might wonder how the aforementioned scene would play to the audiences of a prior era. While a vocal contingent of critics holds that art neither evolves nor improves, if we can in fact invoke a notion of cinematic “progress” it is in the sense of the medium having acquired a memory and a history. If we can speak of a genuine change in how films are watched, it is because the act of viewing now comes with the responsibility to remember.

The matter of memory emerges explicitly during the final stretch of Close Your Eyes, in which Arenas is found in an old folks’ home, where he works as a handyman in exchange for food and board, having retained his physical abilities but lost his memory and identity. Nicknamed “Gardel” by the nuns who run the home due his predilection for singing tango, he is a man with a past, but no history. Miguel visits in an attempt to jog his friend’s memory, as does Arenas’ daughter Ana (Torrent), but neither are able to elicit from him any glimmers of recognition. We learn, though, that Arenas still keeps a photo of Qiao Shu from the production of The Farewell Gaze. Unable to untangle the roles he once played from his own identity, he has evidently lost his sense of both. (In this respect, Torrent’s presence in the film is more than decorative: whereas Spirit of the Beehive saw a young girl still learning to separate art from life, Close Your Eyes shows us a man who has forgotten how to do so.)
In one final attempt to restore Arenas’ memory, Miguel decides to show him the closing reel of The Farewell Gaze. Evidently, he hopes for something like a miracle—though, as a friend reminds him, “miracles in movies haven’t existed since Dreyer died.” To be sure, the finale of Close Your Eyes includes no radical transformation, no divine resolution to rival that of Ordet (1955), just close-ups of faces in a darkened theatre. But though this closing passage plays less like a miracle than as a lesson in film history, it is no less profound or moving for it. The strange case of Julio Arenas reminds us that although our lives may be bound up with the cinema, the medium has a history that’s ultimately distinct from our own, and irreducible to it. Indeed, it is perhaps only by recognizing this distinction that the cinema should be what we call art—that its images should be more than just images, taking on the gravity of a world.

lgarcia@cinema-scope.com Garcia Lawrence