It seems somewhat fitting that David Cronenberg should be slated to remake Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes. After all, it was Videodrome, the Canadian auteur’s 1983 what-is-reality mindfuck that set the pattern for several generations of cinematic headtrips of which Vigalonda’s film stands as the latest example. But in Timecrimes, the director seems as intent on launching a Hitchcockian exploration into the ethics of looking as he is on mining the territory of the contemporary puzzle picture, even as his narrative spins off into a myriad of directions and repeatedly forks back on itself.
Vigalondo’s film wastes little time in foregrounding the act of seeing. After an opening montage of fixed shots taken from different vantage points in a moving car—foreshadowing the film’s complex web of shifting viewpoints—Vigalondo cuts to a middle-age couple relaxing on lawn chairs in the backyard of their villa. A là Rear Window, the man pulls out a pair of binoculars and, as seen through a series of POV shots, glimpses a few ominous shapes arising out of the woods and, eventually, a young woman exposing her breasts. When his wife conveniently leaves to go to the store, the man, Hector, follows the trail of female nudity and in short order comes across the woman stripped bare and apparently dead. As the camera peers down her body, the viewer shares in Hector’s contemplation of naked flesh. Suddenly, as if in punitive response to his (and our) ogling, a man with a bloody bandage wrapped around his head leaps out of the woods, stabs Hector in the arm and then follows in hot pursuit, chasing the hapless protagonist into a nearby laboratory where he finally takes refuge.
Shifting gears from what plays like a particularly tense slasher flick to a bit of ethical sci-fi, the rest of the film consists of two retellings of the initial story, each from a new point of view. The kicker is that all three perspectives belong to Hector. Escaping to the laboratory, Hector hides out in a cistern on the lab floor; when he emerges moments later, he realizes he’s been transported back in time roughly an hour and that, as a result, he’s now coexistent with his earlier self. So Hector 2 watches Hector 1 going through the exact same events he’s just finished living, occasionally influencing these actions to bring them in line with his own prior experience. So what had registered as inexplicable intrusions in the film’s first section (a strange phone call, the presence of the naked woman and the bandaged intruder) are now revealed as the manipulations of Hector’s future self.
But on which side does the burden of causality lie? When Hector 2 forces the young woman to lift up her shirt for the gaze of his other self, is he simply allowing reality to conform to the way it’s already unfolded or is he the primary agent in creating this reality in the first place? Since, in subsequent scenes, the young woman is stripped of further garments and then rendered unconscious, these questions come to seem less like the solution to an amusing cinematic riddle and more a matter of significant moral import, especially as Vigalondo extends the range of implication from his two Hectors to include the audience as well, the lingering shots on Barbara Goenaga’s lovely torso calculated to arouse, and thus compromise, the presumptive hetero male viewer.
The film’s final section, as the Hectors multiply yet again, seems something of a retreat from the ethical inquiry of the heady middle segment into the intellectual safety of a strict formal exercise. As before, Vigalondo handles the increasingly intricate plotting with faultless execution: the film’s uncountable narrative strands are never less than perfectly cohesive. But something’s lost in the transition; suddenly the stakes seem considerably lower, and despite a tossed off allusion to Vertigo, the Hitchcockian promise of the film’s first two-thirds dissipates as implicative drama gives way to hardened academicism. But until then, Timecrimes succeeds both as nail-biting suspenser and as fascinating exploration of the ethics of seeing. Would that most of its contemporary mindfuck brethren gave us half so much.