Cinema is an inherently handicapped medium. Whereas humans experience the world through five senses, when we enter the theater, we are served by just two: sight and sound (the smell of popcorn butter notwithstanding). Perhaps this is why filmmakers are constantly trying to improve on these two fronts, with enhancements such as Atmos and Imax and stereoscopic 3D. Marc Forster has another idea: In “All I See Is You,” the director of “World War Z” scales back to his indie roots (to the sort of relationship drama he made 15 years earlier with “Monster’s Ball”), building a movie around a blind woman who recovers her sight and literally starts to see her life differently.
It’s an intriguing conceit, to be sure, and must have been fascinating for Forster to try to implement, allowing the director to experiment with new ways of representing the other senses. (At many times, the screen is either dark or completely out of focus, while sounds are amplified, or else he surprises us with abstract angles and seemingly random shots of clouds, water, and tropical fish.) But what does it all add up to? Look past the gimmick, and all that remains is an overly arty study of a lopsided marriage in which super-attentive husband James (Jason Clarke) actually seems to prefer when his wife Gina (Blake Lively) can’t see — and another opportunity for Lively to prove that she’s more than just a pretty face.
When she’s blind, Gina depends almost entirely on James. For all intents and purposes, he is her world. They live together in Bangkok, where he sells life insurance. Still traumatized by flashbacks to the accident that killed her parents and left her blinded more than a decade earlier, Gina spends her days hanging around their apartment — a minimalistic loft decorated just the way he likes it — or else getting exercise down at the local pool (where she’s not the least bit distracted by the handsome men in Speedos). Forster and co-writer Sean Conway, include a telling scene in which James takes her out to a nightclub, but spoils her fun by telling her that dancing makes them “look stupid.”
Gina doesn’t realize it, but she’s the perfect trophy wife — a lovely, submissive young woman whose disability spares James the need for jealousy. And then comes the medical miracle: A complex operation restores the sight to her right eye, and suddenly, her reality is no longer limited to what James says it is. And though he should be happy for her, James is suddenly threatened. He’s not a conventionally handsome man, which she can now see. Their apartment isn’t welcoming, the way she had imagined, it, but a sterile prison of sorts.
In his insecurity, James quickly realizes that he could lose his wife if he doesn’t do something, and so he makes a series of gestures, some of them chivalrous (such as taking her to the Bangkok Flower Market, where she’s overwhelmed by the colors), and others almost desperate (claiming to have re-booked their honeymoon suite in Spain, he actually rents a far nicer room, as if trying to cover his tracks from earlier). Little by little, Gina begins to realize that the man she loves has been manipulating her, but instead of coming right out and showing the deception, Forster plays with the notion of limiting what she — or we — can see.
At one point, James agrees to be bound and blindfolded by his wife, and here, the two characters have a chance to play with the idea of how he might react to the tables being turned, but the scene sizzles before it can even get started — and later, watching James relive the encounter, it’s totally unclear what he’s thinking. Still, one thing is perfectly plain: James isn’t dealing well with his wife’s newfound independence, and as his jealousy mounts, her condition seems to worsen. The blurriness returns to her vision, but not before she leaves her husband to go watch a live sex show. And the problem doesn’t keep her from shagging that hunky guy (Wes Chatham) from the pool — so maybe James’ anxieties are more than mere paranoia. At any rate, Gina hasn’t had the chance to live her own life, and just as the operation is giving her that opportunity, her body apparently starts to reject the corneal implant.
Judged strictly by its plot, “All I See Is You” is a thin spin on the classic “Gaslight” thriller, where a husband manipulates his wife into thinking she’s crazy. But the material gives Lively far more to work with than any of her past roles, and proves just substantial enough for Forster to get creative with exploring new ways of representing certain sensations onscreen: What does sex look like to someone who can’t see? How does a shower feel to a blind woman? What is the visual equivalent of music? Forster — who once ventured into the far more Charlie Kaufman-esque realm of reconceiving reality with “Stranger Than Fiction” — presents intriguing ideas for each of these questions, but falls short of anything truly, well, visionary.
And so we’re left with a handsomely imagined, if somewhat grungily executed drama (surely it would’ve made more sense to hire a more experienced DP than Matthias Koenigswieser, who does just fine with the abstract interludes, but makes the rest look relatively dreary) in which the music — as opposed to anything visual — is perhaps the most beautiful ingredient. Brought up through the ranks by director Ridley Scott, composer Marc Streitenfeld supplies a lovely little theme, which repeats throughout on keyboard, strings, and so on. Throughout the film, Gina has been writing a song of her own, and when she finally sings it in the next-to-last scene, James can’t take it any more. What happens next is a blur of images — a tunnel, blood, broken glass, a baby. We can’t trust our eyes for a moment, but the lyrics remind that when the emotions are true, love is blind.