Victor Erice’s lost time

  • Themes: Culture, Film

In this latest film, Close Your Eyes, the enigmatic Spanish-Basque filmmaker Victor Erice asks: is it within cinema’s power to bring back the dead?

Jose Coronado in Close Your Eyes, directed by Victor Erice.
Jose Coronado in Close Your Eyes, directed by Victor Erice. Credit: Tandem Films / Pampa Films / Album / Alamy Stock Photo

Close Your Eyes, a new film by Spanish-Basque director Victor Erice, begins and ends with the image of a two-faced statue in a garden, looking, Janus-like, in opposite directions. Likewise, the film – a meditation on memory, identity and the power of cinema ­– unfolds forwards while taking some steps backwards. Twenty years after the unexplained disappearance of film star Julio Arenas (Jose Coronado) interrupts the making of the film The Farewell Gaze, its director, Miguel Garay (Manolo Solo), whose film career has never recovered from the event, takes part in a missing-persons television programme profiling the Julio Arenas mystery. This leads Miguel to find the trace of a man whom he believes to be Julio, now an amnesiac working in a care home as a handyman.

Victor Erice is 82 years old, a revered master of filmmaking who made his name in 1973 with the enigmatic The Spirit of the Beehive. Set in a remote Castilian village shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the film is centred on Ana (Ana Torrent), a seven-year-old girl who exists in a state of innocence where reality and fantasy are closely intertwined. Ana is taken to the cinema for the first time to see James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, a quietly traumatic experience which leaves her much preoccupied with the figure of the terrifying and pitiful ‘creature’. Soon after this, coming across a wounded Republican soldier hiding out in an isolated barn, she assumes that he is the creature, and that she magically summoned it by saying the words: ‘I am Ana.’ This very line is also uttered in Close Your Eyes by the same actress, now 50 years older, as a different kind of summoning – this time addressing her amnesiac father and attempting to reconnect with him.

In the interval between The Spirit of The Beehive and Close Your Eyes, Erice has only produced a slim body of work: the enigmatic family drama El Sur (The South, 1983), left unfinished because funding was pulled mid-shoot, The Quince Tree Sun (1992), a documentary about the Spanish painter Antonio López Garcia, and several short films. Erice has also spent time of projects that did not get made, the most intriguing of which would have focused on ‘Las Meninas,’ Velasquez’s extraordinary painting of the Infanta Margaret Theresa and her ladies-in-waiting. Erice also published a book about the American director Nicholas Ray. He has made video installations and he exchanged video letters with the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, which were compiled into a film shown as part of the 2007 exhibition Erice-Kiarostami: Correspondences.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Erice has not made more work: his films go against the grain of commercial cinema, an inimical context in which he considers himself part of the ‘resistance’, producing films that are born ‘in enemy territory’. There is, for a Spanish filmmaker, a political dimension to this sense of exile and alienation. The Spirit of The Beehive and El Sur both evoke the oppressive atmosphere of Francoist Spain. In Erice’s dreamlike reality, the figure of the ‘monster’, whose appearance on the screen so unsettles young Ana in Beehive, is also a manifestation of the pervasive fear and repression experienced under a dictatorship, and indeed of the monstrosity of the regime itself. In 1973, setting the film’s action in 1940 without expressing approval of Franco’s victory was still the provocative act of a dissident. The Spirit of The Beehive’s metaphorical approach to political contrariness had a profound influence on Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 fantasy film set in 1944, in which a young girl whose new stepfather is a fanatical Falangist journeys through a tormented world where reality and fairy tale are intertwined. The deliberately subversive nature of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist cinema should also be considered within the context of the political and cultural censorship of Francoist Spain, as a form of rebellious resistance.

Close Your Eyes opens with a first sequence which turns out to belong to Miguel’s film-within-the-film The Farewell Gaze. In this scene from the unfinished movie, one of the last to have been shot before the disappearance of Julio Arenas, an enigmatic old man, Mr Lévy (José Maria Pou), hires the character played by Arenas to go to Shanghai and find the lost daughter he had with a Chinese entertainer and whom it is his wish to see once more before dying. During the conversation, set in 1947, Franco’s dictatorship is explicitly referenced. Moreover, with its complex layering of different eras and events both fictional and actual and its cinematic echoes of film noir tropes and of Josef von Sternberg’s 1941 thriller The Shanghai Gesture, the scene is also exemplary of Erice’s distinctive and highly literate approach to cinema. It also signals the past-present wefting of the narrative that will follow, in which Miguel, echoing in real life the fictional mission accepted by Arenas’s character in The Farewell Gaze, will set out to discover the whereabouts of another missing person – Arenas himself, who was his collaborator and close friend.

To this end Miguel will have to engage with the past. More than once he visits a storage space where he examines relics from the interrupted film: the script, some 1940s costumes, cassette tapes, an address book. There is also a cigar box containing a watch, some stamps, a postcard of a ship in the high seas which Miguel wrote to his son, who is now dead, and a small flip book of the Lumière Brothers’ 1896 L’arrivée du train en gare de la Ciotat, capturing a moving train and spectral human figures from the past. Miguel also reconnects with Max, his film editor who is the keeper of ‘the remains of the shipwreck’, the unfinished film’s remnants, and with Julio Arenas’s daughter Ana, who evokes the experience of growing up with an absent, ghost-like father, a film star who has only been ever present to her on the cinema screen. Later, Miguel does find Julio Arenas who, after many years of drifting, has taken on a new incarnation as handyman ‘Gardel’ (so nicknamed by the nuns who run the care home where he works because he often whistles tango tunes), who remembers nothing of his past life. And it is the contents of Gardel’s box of keepsakes, including a prop from The Farewell Gaze, the sepia photograph of Mr Lévy’s missing daughter, that confirm his identity.

Close Your Eyes isn’t a simple film. The pace is slow, contemplative. There are visual traps: Miguel is an image-maker and he occasionally fills in the blank of Julio’s disappearance with imagined memories. Focus and a spirit of enquiry, the very things that Miguel’s character requires of himself, are expected of the viewer. Throughout, the visual style is painterly: Erice has consistently explored in his films the interplay of light and darkness and its ability to inspire emotions. Like his other works, Close Your Eyes, with its nocturnal feel, displays what Henry James called ‘the tone of time’, a muted, faded palette evocative of memory. His is a world of rust and peeling paint. Rare are the touches of bright colour: the red casing of Miguel’s mobile phone, the vividly dyed hair of a young woman working in television, the red and green lights glimpsed inside a film projector. With this return to the screen, which is also a sum total of his past works and artistic preoccupations, Erice, who is, like his character Miguel, a peliculero (film geek), asks what may be for him the essential question, though its terms are brought in guardedly and not without irony: what is the relationship between cinema and the soul?


Muriel Zagha