From the moment we follow Eduardo Noriega’s handsome, twenty-something yuppy Cesar driving out of the garage of his flashy apartment into the centre of a deserted Madrid, this psychological thriller hooks you into a confused fantasy, half-dream, half-nightmare.
Hiding his disfigured face behind a mask Cesar endures draining sessions with a father-figure psychiatrist (Chete Lera), who is trying to piece together the chain of events that have led to a) his mental breakdown and b) a suspected murder. A series of flashbacks reveal Cesar to be a successful, womanizing businessman; the kind of guy that doesn’t sleep twice with the same girl, loves beige chinos and drives around in a sporty cabriolet. He’s been stopped in his bratty prime however by a horrific, life-changing incident.
Central to this incident and the fall-out that follows are two ladies. One is a sweet, funny girl-next-door-type called Sofia (Penelope Cruz), whom he can’t take his eyes off. The other is the dress-to-kill loner/succubus/sociopath, Nuria (Najwa Nimri).
At his birthday party, trying to escape the attentions of Nuria, Cesar is introduced to Sofia through his best friend, Pelayo (Fele Martinez), who’s big time in love with her. This doesn’t stop Cesar from going after Sofia without a moment’s thought. Cesar spends the night smarming it up with Sofia, who is clear that she’s not going to sleep with him yet. While nothing sexier than drawing cartoons of each other happens, a strong connection is established, one that has the usually smooth-talking Cesar staring puppy-faced at her while she’s asleep. When Cesar leaves Sofia’s flat in the morning, and finds the eerily unhinged Nuria waiting for him in her car (to offer him a mid-morning nightcap), things are about to get out of control.
Amenábar’s film, stylishly shot in Madrid’s city centre, jumps around like a Spanish Mulholland Drive. Time goes backwards. Identities merge and swap over. One minute, Cesar is disfigured. The next he isn’t. He’s won back Sofia. No he hasn’t. Hang on, is she even Sofia? All of this keeps you rolling along in an engrossed daze. Amenábar then throws in a creepy Science Fiction subplot involving a French cryogenics expert (Gerard Barray), who represents a company offering resurrection at very reasonable rates, and you’re left wondering what the hell is going on even beyond the final credits.
The film is a rejigging of the biblical tale of Job for the materialistic 90s. It’s also got elements of Buñuel, Beauty and the Beast, Don Juan and The Phantom of the Opera. It’s a slick, disturbing portrait of a certain kind of emotional nihilism and vain self-centredness that has been encouraged to flourish in our society today, which, when the shiny packaging of personality is stripped away, leaves only what Edward Bernays would have viewed as the dangerous ‘controlling power’ of ‘irrational desires’, embodied by Cesar, which is there to be exploited by big business.
A few years later, the film would undergo its own form of identity crisis, as it attracted attention from Tom Cruise, who liked it and Penelope so much he decided to whisk them off to Hollywood for a cheesier-than-thou remake called Vanilla Sky, with Cameron Crowe as director. But the crisply scripted original, with all its unresolved feelings and confusion, is the far better film.