"Here too it's masquerade, I find:
As everywhere, the dance of mind.
I grasped a lovely masked procession,
And caught things from a horror show...
I'd gladly settle for a false impression,
If it would last a little longer, though."
--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Memento, Abre Los Ojos, Vanilla Sky, The Others, The Sixth Sense, Just Like Heaven
The Moral of the Story: Who Wears the Mask?
by Susan Lien Whigham
Directed and co-written by Alejandro Amenábar, Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) tells the story of a handsome, wealthy, womanizing young man, César, who at the outset of the film has grown tired of a possessive ex-lover, Nuria, and set his sights on a potential new love, Sofia (who happens to also be the love interest of his best friend, Pelayo). In spite of his budding feelings for Sofia, César accepts an offer from Nuria to ride home with her for one last tryst, and Nuria proceeds to wreck the car in a suicide/murder attempt which leaves her dead and César horribly disfigured.
We journey with César through a number of scenes which ultimately reveal to us that on being rejected by Sofia after the accident, he signs a contract with a company called Life Extension which promises to keep his body cryogenically preserved until such time that he can be resuscitated to live out his life under more "ideal" conditions. He commits suicide (thus terminating once and for all his relationships with his best friend Pelayo and the real Sofia), and César's body is then put into cryogenic suspension, during which time his mind experiences a virtual reality that he himself had designed with the help of Life Extension. This virtual reality is meant to be a kind of paradise where he has the power to overwrite his unhappy memories with his own version of a happy ending, but the experience turns out to be more like a recurring nightmare from which he is unable to awaken.
What César had wanted in his "happy ending" was a reality in which he ends up in a loving relationship with Sofia and his handsome face is successfully restored by means of plastic surgery. For a short time, all goes according to plan and he's able to have these things, thanks to Life Extension. However, things begin to go awry in his mind and he ends up killing the dream Sofia, convinced that she is Nuria. Finally, his memory breaks through the virtual reality and helps him come to terms with the truth.
Throughout the film, there's a plastic mask that César wears which serves to symbolize those traits in himself that he has failed to recognize: the inner ugliness of his womanizing behavior and relentless pursuit of hedonism without regard for consequence. These traits ultimately make themselves manifest onto his physical appearance by means of the car accident which strips him of his good looks, but still he believes he can escape the karmic repercussion of his actions by signing on for a new reality with Life Extension. Only by facing the "ugly" truth and making a symbolic leap of faith off of the Life Extension building in the end, he is able to begin his real life again, and able to open his eyes for the first time.
There is an American remake of this film by director Cameron Crowe, called Vanilla Sky, which has a virtually identical plot yet remains an almost completely different film for reasons that largely have to do with choices in atmosphere made by the respective directors, as well as cultural differences. In general, I prefer the style of the original, but there were a few added details in Vanilla Sky which I greatly appreciated, and I felt that they strongly supported the existing themes and demonstrated a genuine understanding by Crowe of what the story was really about. For example, the following quote made by the central character's best friend, Brian (Pelayo's American counterpart), "You can do whatever you want with your life but one day you'll know what love truly is. It's the sour and the sweet and I know the sour, which allows me to appreciate the sweet," aptly illustrates the difference between happiness and hedonism, an important distinction which David (César's American counterpart ) continually fails to grasp until the end. Unlike hedonism, happiness is not about escaping pain, but rather it is the feeling of satisfaction that derives from living an honest and balanced life.
The symbolism of the cat as a feminine archetype is briefly touched upon in Abre Los Ojos but further developed in Vanilla Sky when Sofia says, "I'll tell you in another life, when we are both cats." (What a really great line! Go Cameron!) David seeks out the cat-like quality in Sofia, illustrating a certain lack of flexibility or fluidity in his approach which he subconsciously desires to attain. By contrast, the masculinity of the dog archetype is one which manifests in César to an extreme, as he doggedly fixes a vice-like grip on his belief that he can maintain complete control over the situation (the image of a pit bull comes to mind).
Inside his virtual reality, César's determination to remain in denial begins to relax as he settles into the comforts of his new life of having Sofia in his arms and his old face restored. However, the feeling of love and acceptance from Sofia is exactly what his subconscious mind needed in order to relax him enough that the truth could rise to the surface. This necessary and inevitable unveiling is irrevocably brought to fruition during a critical moment when Sophia transforms into Nuria while he is having sex with her, at which time his attempt to smother Nuria out of his memory once and for all results in his inability to sustain the illusion of being with Sophia. This event of confusing the two women also connects in a karmic way to his tendency to objectify women, unable (and unwilling) to distinguish one from another in terms of their emotional needs.
César's journey into and out of his virtual reality is a fitting symbol for the very common psychological journey into and out of solitude that many people experience when they are dealing with unresolved karmic issues that must be faced alone. This solitude calls to the individal's attention that he or she is the only person who has the power to fix the situation, and this aspect of the karmic reconciliation is also emphasized in the story. Once the root of the karmic issue resolves, transcendence occurs.
At the positive end of karmic repercussions demonstrated in these two films, Pelayo/Brian, the virtuous and loyal friend, is the one who ends up getting the girl of his dreams. On another positive note, César by virtue of his transcendence is able to wake up in the end to a reality in which technological advances will be able to genuinely restore his face, thereby allowing a physical transformation to once again reflect his inner journey.
Susan Lien Whigham © 2006 All Rights Reserved
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