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Víctor Erice’s Close Your Eyes

Ana Torrent in Víctor Erice’s Close Your Eyes (2023)

Víctor Erice’s debut feature, The Spirit of the Beehive, premiered in San Sebastián fifty years ago, won the festival’s top award, and as critic and author Paul Julian Smith writes in the essay accompanying our release, “soon established itself as the consummate masterpiece of Spanish cinema.” Ana, a six-year-old girl played by Ana Torrent, sees James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) projected on a dusty wall in her tiny Spanish village. “And it transforms her,” says Guillermo del Toro. “And it makes the world magical.”

In Close Your Eyes, Erice’s fourth feature and his first in more than thirty years, Erice gives Torrent “a monologue that cinematographer Valentín Álvarez shoots in close-up, her face filling the frame almost in its entirety,” observes Leonardo Goi in the Notebook. “It’s a scene that, like so many others in Close Your Eyes, doesn’t register as a reunion so much as a goodbye.” Writing for Variety, Guy Lodge finds Erice’s new film to be “a shimmery, nourishing culmination of ideas and ellipses in a career so elusive as to have taken on a mythic quality, to the point that his latest feels almost dreamed into being. But Close Your Eyes proves a disarmingly simple, emotionally direct film once its out-of-time aura settles.”

Torrent’s character is once again named Ana. She’s the daughter of Julio Arenas (José Coronado), a famous actor who disappeared without a trace in the middle of the 1990 production of The Farewell Gaze, a film about an elderly wealthy Spaniard living in France in 1947 as a refugee from Franco’s Spain. He hires a friend played by Julio Arenas to seek out the daughter he’s lost in Shanghai and bring her to him so that they can see each other one last time. The Farewell Gaze, this film-within-a-film, was never completed, and its director, Miguel Garay (Manolo Soro), never picked up a camera again.

The reverberations here between this set-up and Erice’s own life and career are plenty. Erice has always claimed that his second feature, El Sur (1983), is an “unfinished drama” in that, halfway through its making, producer Elías Querejeta shut down production. Novelist Elvira Lindo argues that it remains “a masterpiece of cinema” nonetheless, and Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri even prefers El Sur over The Spirit of the Beehive.

Close Your Eyes opens with scenes from The Farewell Gaze, and Ebiri suggests that “with its lush images of footage allegedly shot long ago,” it “even looks like it could have been a part of a real movie called The Shanghai Spell that Erice spent three years preparing back in the late 1990s, only to have it fall apart. Some have speculated that this actually is footage Erice shot for that project, but that production appears to have stopped well before cameras started rolling.” Close Your Eyes is “a film made by a man who has been unable to direct the films he’s wanted to for decades. You feel his frustration and regret in every frame, but you also sense a sort of acceptance.”

As if to compound the frustration, though, Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux’s announcement back in April that the festival would present Close Your Eyes in its Cannes Premiere program came as a surprise to Erice. As he explains in an open letter published in El País, had he known his film would not be selected for the main competition, it’s likely that he would have taken up one of a good handful of offers from other festivals.

In 2012, the present moment of Close Your Eyes, director Miguel Garay is approached by the producers of a Spanish television program, Unsolved Cases. They’re preparing an episode on Julio Arenas, and Miguel could use the money they’re offering for rights to show clips from The Farewell Gaze. Close Your Eyes “quickly assumes a methodical cadence,” writes Cole Kronman at Slant. “Miguel and one other character will have a protracted conversation about Arenas while simultaneously litigating matters of life, death, love, and art. These scenes, in their patience, illuminate Erice and cowriter Michel Gaztambide’s true interests, which lie not in unspooling Julio’s past so much as in reckoning with the ways those connected to him have also, in their own manner, begun fading away.”

Erice’s “languorous storytelling, with its quiet sympathy for all of the film’s characters, takes many pleasing detours but ultimately leads to an ending that is abrupt, surprising, and utterly transcendent,” writes Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com. “An elderly man in the film opines at one point that cinema lost its magic ‘when Dreyer died.’ Erice seems out to revive that magic, and his film’s last minutes miraculously do just that.”

Close Your Eyes screens on Thursday, Saturday, and October 13 at the New York Film Festival; on October 14 and 15 in London; and on October 28 at AFI Fest in Los Angeles.

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