The opening scenes of Stephen Poliakoff's film, 'Close My Eyes', are truly mesmerising. We see a floodlit bowling green, incongruously (but, given that one of the subplots of the movie turns out to concern urban planning law, not irrelevantly) positioned amongst tower blocks; meanwhile a young woman (Natalie, played by Saskia Reeves) is smoking a cigarette on a balcony, possibly in one of those same blocks. As the credits fade, the camera homes in on a young man in a hurry (Richard, played by Clive Owen), passing by the bowlers; it turns out that the woman is his estranged sister, and he's late. She, on the other hand, is upset, and looks to him for comfort; and in the middle of the night, they share a moment of affection that goes a little bit beyond what siblings ought to do. The unfolding of their lives over the next few years is then summarised through a depiction of their subsequent (non-) interactions: he is every bit the strident, ambitious, fornicating yuppie; while she feels lost and uncertain, with a brother-shaped hole in her life. But after years abroad, Richard comes home, rather surprisingly to take a lowly paid public sector job. And then Natalie, whom he has almost forgotten, gets in touch and invites him to meet her new husband, Sinclair (played wonderfully by Alan Rickman, in probably his finest role). Sinclair is a millionaire futurologist, a man both kindly, but also child-like in his fundamental inability to empathise. And Natalie, who has gained a new confidence, starts to come on to Richard with a very definite intent. The skill with which the film effectively tells half its story in just a handful of minutes, with brilliantly selected visuals replacing the need for expository dialogue, is breathtaking; one can hardly take one's eyes off the screen.
But for all Poliakoff's brilliantly striking imagery, the film manifests some serious defects. To start with, the subsequent plotting doesn't quite work. The central idea appears to be that ambitious Richard falls in love with his sister, but she is only game-playing; he then falls apart. But the film keeps its distance from its characters, sometimes their motivation (beyond raw sexual passion) is unclear, and some of their behaviour seems forced to fit the dictates of plot. One could also argue that, in dealing with incest, the film is slightly dishonest. It wants to be seen to explore a taboo, but creates a scenario in which two consenting, independent adults find themselves in a very unusual situation: to put it another way, the reason incest is taboo is because it is almost invariably exploitative, whereas this relationship is not (at least, not in the way that generally characterises the phenomenon).
Another aspect of this movie is Poliakoff's decision to set his movie in a landscape more symbolic than real. We witness the progression of an almost supernaturally idyllic affair, made even more perfect by being set in contrast to the spectre of A.I.D.S. Sexual intercourse takes place between beautiful bodies disrobing from beautiful clothing in beautiful places. Alan Rickman plays the sort of eccentric genius whom we instinctively feel is exactly what a millionaire should be like, though in reality, one suspects, most are none of the sort. Even the supposedly wretched council offices where Richard takes up his new job have more the feel of a trendy design consultancy than of grim municipal poverty. More generally, Poliakoff's films invariably set up contrasts between worlds defined by qualities such as power, sex, or tradition; but never seem to recognise that all these qualities, far from being opposites, are just different attributes that identify some as the "haves" of our society, as opposed to the "have-nots". There are a few images of the homeless, of the truly dispossessed, in this film, but they only exist as images; while the real drama plays out within a gilded circle. In some respects, it's this romantic other-worldliness that makes the film so physically striking. But social realism it ain't.
Does this make it a bad film? On the contrary, one could say it's a great film. But the roots of Poliakoff's later disaster, 'The Tribe', are clearly on show here, alongside evidence of his rare gift for combining intelligence and beauty, in this fascinatingly flawed film.