This fall, mainstream films are subverting expectations all over the place. Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! proved too much for some audiences looking for a moody drama who were then shocked by gory, allegorical narrative. Blade Runner 2049 sloughed off most of its predecessor’s lower-brow populist action for a somber tone and arty philosophizing. And Marshall washed its hands of an expedient biopic in favor of a curious meld of legal thriller and buddy comedy. Now director Marc Forster is in the mix of slippery and difficult-to-categorize studio films, with his experimental romantic drama, All I See Is You, which has all the visual style and tension of a thriller but none of the violent payouts. It defeats expectations, but it’s far more arresting and captivating a romance because Forster infuses it with suspenseful urgency. I have to admire the guts of a director who portrays the dissolution of a mismatched marriage with the dread of a murder mystery.
In the first frames, Forster plunges us into a heavenly orgiastic collage of nude limbs and torsos writhing and grinding amid an atmosphere of clouds, in the style of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. We realize later that this is in the imagination of Gina (Blake Lively) as she makes love to her husband James (Jason Clarke). Gina lost her eyesight in a car accident as a young girl; now, even though she’s got a cane, her husband guides her around their bland, modern apartment in Thailand, where James is stationed for his insurance business. Despite the sexual fantasy we witnessed earlier, these two seem as boring and traditional as milk — well, as least James does.
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On the outside, Gina is pretty but ill-served by the baggy clothes her husband has picked out for her — everything she wears is utilitarian, expressing little personality. But Forster allows us access to her imagination, to what the world may sound, look or feel like to her; when James pours Gina glasses of red wine, we hear the liquid slosh in the glass like it’s right next to our ears. Through Gina, we see the world as a kaleidoscope of colors swirling like food dye in water, strange squiggles and specks floating here and there on a fisheye lens. Life seems both frightening and exhilarating, as though her adrenaline spikes every time she must navigate her own apartment.
All that changes when Gina qualifies for a corneal transplant in her right eye, a drastic shift in the couple’s lifestyle that, clearly, neither has quite thought through — she’s never even seen her husband, let alone her own adult body. After the surgery, James asks her if she’s looked at herself. In that moment, Clarke portrays his character with a kind of buzzing nervous energy under James’ encouraging smiles — she’s beautiful, he’s not, and she’s gonna find out sooner or later. This is the second movie hitting theaters this year (with Dee Rees’ heartrending, upcoming Mudbound) that features poor Clarke as the unattractive and dissatisfying partner, but let’s hope for his sake that’s not a permanent typecasting, even though he plays the part so well. The combination of Clarke’s creepy but sympathetic demeanor and Forster’s disorienting, fast-paced storytelling push this film toward a thriller.
Pretty quickly, we find out James is painfully right about Gina wanting better, because she’s more entranced by her fantasy life than she is by her husband or apartment. On a trip to Spain to relive their honeymoon, Gina, curious and insatiable, walks ahead of her husband. They paddle in separate kayaks into a bay, and she’s too far ahead to hear him call her back. And when they meet up with Gina’s adventurous sister Carla (Ahna O’Reilly) and her eccentric artist husband Ramon (Miquel Fernandez), James realizes again just how out of his league his wife is, opening the door in this story for him to become possessive and devious to keep her.
There’s no use in giving away how he tries to keep her tethered to him, but just know that it’s both despicable and yet not the worst of what jealous husbands have done to their wives in movies. There won’t be a murder or a chase scene, but the hits come from the weight of how terrible it is to fall out of love. When you’re in a relationship, any betrayal from your partner feels like a knife slicing through you — you needn’t see the literal knife. And the array of disillusioned, annoyed and anguished faces Lively makes are convincing enough proof that a lopsided love is colder than death. When she snaps at James for not punching out a guy who grabbed her ass, she beams angry lasers out of those baby blues of hers. You know exactly right then why Forster cast this particular leading lady, whose expressive eyes are her most powerful tool.