Why do James (Jason Clarke) and his visually impaired wife Gina (Blake Lively) live in Bangkok? It’s a question that hangs over “All I See Is You,” begging to be asked. We know that James does insurance work somewhere in the Thai capital, but the way he brings it up in conversation makes it sound like an alibi. Usually film characters take jobs in far-flung destinations towards the end of the story, not before it starts. In truth the answer couldn’t be more obvious; it’s there the whole time, right in front of our faces, visible to everyone but Gina. Or maybe she sees it too, and — like us — simply doesn’t want to accept the fact that her doting husband moved her to a foreign city because of her debilitating blindness, and not in spite of it.
It can be nice to feel needed, but there’s grave danger in confusing dependence for love. So goes the moral of the latest film from “Finding Neverland” director, a silly but surprisingly engrossing cautionary tale about male insecurities run wild. Forster, whose inept blockbusters (“Quantum of Solace,” “World War Z”) make it easy to forget the twisted ambition of his similarly flawed smaller efforts (“Monster’s Ball,” “Stranger Than Fiction”), doesn’t waste any time in letting us know that we’re in for something completely different.
“All I See Is You” opens with the strangest of its many sex scenes, Gina’s ecstasy conveyed as a kaleidoscopic orgy, hundreds of anonymous naked bodies woven into an endless latticework of slo-mo humping. There’s something weirdly chaste about the image — and about all of the carnality in this tense erotic melodrama — which feels either too surreal or too desperate to be hot. Gina retained about five percent of her eyesight from the childhood car accident that killed her parents, and Forster uses those last glimmers of light to visualize her world as a milky cocoon, more imagined than perceived. She seems to spend most of her time inside of their high-rise apartment, the city outside too alien for her to navigate without her husband’s help.
The good news is that she has an appointment scheduled for a corneal transplant. The bad news is that her doctor is played by Danny Huston, whose natural menace is toned down just enough for us not to scream warnings at the screen.
Whatever darkness his presence portends, there’s no denying that Dr. Huston is an effective surgeon. And yet, it’s only after Gina regains some portion of her sight that the trouble really starts. She sees herself for the first time since she was a little girl, and reckons with a whole new sense of her sexuality. She sees James for the first time ever, and observes that he looks different than she thought (Clarke, exuding Cro-Magnon boorishness, can’t help but crumple before her eyes). His wife’s handicap made him feel special, and secure in the thought that no other man might come to poach her away; he regarded Gina as a beautiful bird with a broken wing — hence Forster’s decision to bludgeon us with dead animal imagery — and he never paid any mind to the idea that to love something is to set it free. Gina straddles with him with new intensity, but suddenly James can’t even come. The couple travels to Spain in order to retrace their honeymoon and pay a visit to Gina’s sister (Ahna O’Reilly), but that only makes things worse. Some couples just can’t survive seeing each other clearly.
Needless to say, the movie boasts nearly infinite capacity for embarrassment. A humorless director whose reach tends to exceed his grasp, an under-appreciated actress who’s never found her niche, a premise that seems plenty overripe even before the story veers towards melodrama with the reckless conviction of someone trying to avoid a deer on a highway… it’s a perfect storm of potential crap. And yet, it works. It works because Forster and Sean Conway’s original script never loses sight of why James and Gina’s relationship is on such shaky ground, and all of the film’s various eccentricities are in service to his emasculation, her emancipation, or both.
Cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser’s only previous credit of note was as an additional shooter on the set of Alma Har’el’s stunning “Bombay Beach,” but “All I See Is You” is a two-hour highlight reel of his talents. From Gina’s milky, curdled POV shots (which make it look as though she’s looking at the world through a rainswept windshield), to the upside down underwater sequences that allow her to dance along the surface of a swimming pool, most of Koenigswieser’s many-splendored images speak to the idea that what people see can shape how they see themselves. The more salacious the plot gets, the more beautiful the movie looks; by the time Gina’s sister takes everyone to a ridiculous Spanish sex club (imagine an episode of “Gossip Girl” directed by Walerian Borowczyk), it’s as though Forster is using the elegance of his style as a prophylactic for the absurdity of his story.
“All I See Is You” continues to be fun and involving even when things get truly ridiculous in the third act and Forster starts relying on the sheer momentum the plot in order to speed over its potholes (five points for anyone who figures out how or why this film climaxes with Gina performing at a grade school talent show). A lot of the credit for that belongs to Blake Lively, who does the best work of her career. She may not be asked to carry the same burden that she did in “The Shallows,” or to save a movie from itself like she was in “Cafe Society,” but she brings a real sense of dimension to the role of a woman who’s overwhelmed by new perspectives.
It’s always felt like there’s a layer of glass between Lively and her characters, something opaque and reflective, but here she uses that to her advantage, creating a sense of distance that reveals the film’s real human drama. You might be laughing at the movie by the time you reach its go-for-broke final shot, but the look on Lively’s face is enough to fulfill the idea that loving someone is not the same as needing someone. It’s a performance that needs to be seen in order to be believed, made possible by a film that knows that seeing and believing can be very different things.
“All I See Is You” opens in theaters on Friday, October 27.