Víctor Erice’s Hauntings

Víctor Erice on the set of Close Your Eyes (2023)

When Close Your Eyes, the first feature from Víctor Erice in more than thirty years, premiered at Cannes last year, Leigh Singer, writing for Sight and Sound, called it “a career summation and an exquisite reckoning of cinema’s power to haunt and enchant, to bring the physically or spiritually dead back to life.” Starting this week, BFI Southbank in London is presenting a season of Erice’s films that will run through April, and the Hong Kong International Film Festival (Thursday through April 8) will host an Erice retrospective as well. On Tuesday, Sabzian and the Ghent University cinema club Film Plateau will screen El sol del membrillo (Dream of Light or The Quince Tree Sun), Erice’s 1992 portrait of Spanish painter Antonio López García.

Now in his late eighties, López was once described by the renowned art critic Robert Hughes as “the greatest realist artist alive.” Blending fiction and nonfiction, Erice traces the creation of a painting of a quince tree over the course of one summer, from the meticulous preparations López carries out before applying the first brushstroke to the moment that could be read as either completion or abandonment. “In an essay on ‘the approximation of cinema and painting,’” wrote Steve Jacobs in Framing Pictures: Film and the Visual Arts (2011), “Erice stated that painting and cinema are two different languages with common elements: painting can express or represent time, but cannot contain it. This power to contain time is reserved for the cinema.”

The excerpt from Jacobs’s book is one of two pieces on Erice that Sabzian has just published, the other being Jean-Philippe Tessé’s contribution to the catalogue for the 2006 exhibition at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, Erice – Kiarostami: Correspondences (and the ten “video-letters” the two directors exchanged will screen during the BFI season). “From his cinema,” wrote Tessé, “Erice has banished forever the re-creation, pastiche, the incestuous and vain reference. Instead, he explores dream images, the imaginary, the empire of specters and sometimes the captivating incarnation of Spirits. In short, projection.”

Projection as a means of bringing the invisible to light is both the text and subtext of Erice’s directorial debut, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Six-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) goes to a traveling movie show and is immediately enchanted by the flickering image of a monster portrayed as an open wound by Boris Karloff. “There is something in the mise-en-scène that indicates disintegration and fatigue, a mystery covered with a barely expressed discomfort,” wrote Roger Koza earlier this year in the program notes for the Erice retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive. “It is not known, not named, but is perceived. There are two monsters in the film: Frankenstein, in the vision of James Whale, projected in a cinema in a lost town in Spain in the 1940s; and a second abject creature, a monster that is not projected, but is present as the spirit of the times: Francoism.”

Though The Spirit of the Beehive is now widely regarded as a classic of Spanish cinema, ten years passed before Erice was able to direct another feature, and even then, the producer halted the project well before Erice considered his adaptation of Adelaida García Morales’s short novel complete. El Sur (1983), too, is haunted by the years between the Spanish Civil War and the death of Francisco Franco in 1975. The film “captures this uncanny, twilit feeling of childhood, one that’s full of wonder and possibility but also the dread of carrying the burden of a parent’s secrets,” wrote Screen Slate founder Jon Dieringer a few years ago. “I find the idea of a daughter discovering and living with her father’s hidden longing unbelievably powerful, and Erice and José Luis Alcaine’s imagery is unparalleled.”

After El sol del membrillo, Erice developed and was planning to direct The Shanghai Spell (2002) before the producer handed the film over to Fernando Trueba instead. While he has continued to write and create short works for galleries or omnibus films, Erice’s efforts to realize feature projects have all too often been thwarted, and his frustrations are reflected in Close Your Eyes.

The core of the story is a disappearance. In the 1990s, filmmaker Miguel Garay (Manolo Solo) was directing a friend, Julio Arenas (José Coronado), in The Farewell Gaze when the famed actor mysteriously vanished. Twenty years later, a Spanish television program reopens the cold case, which leads Garay to reconnect with Arenas’s daughter (Ana Torrent, playing another Erice character named Ana).

“Despite a procedural aspect to the script,” wrote Little White Lies editor David Jenkins last May, “as we amass details of what may have led to Julio’s departure, Erice is more interested in artfully mapping out the mechanisms of human memory, and how cinema plays a part in how we remember other people as well as ourselves. Matters take a strange turn, and the film shifts up into a new, more overtly emotional register, climaxing in a sequence of staggering beauty and transcendence. What begins as an apparently modest, small-scale drama, ends in a moment of ethereal beauty, for both characters and viewers.”

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