Hold your memory for a moment with a blind hand.
Write some stories for tomorrow.
From the bottle of amnesia
Find instructions to salvation, to oblivion supreme.
Don’t be tempted to look back. It has all happen before.
The words from the song “Dust It Off,” by the indie Franco-Finnish duo The Dø, play in the heads of molecular biologist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) and the girl of his dreams, Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), as they begin a passionate affair of opposites. He’s a man of science, tracking the PAX6 gene in mice in an attempt to definitively disprove the fundamentalist Christian belief in a deity. She is a creature of the ethereal, eternal spirit; she’s also great in bed. Even more enticing are Sofi’s eyes: brown on the inner part, greenish gray-blue on the outer part, with specks of different colors. Ian has been taking photographs of eyes since he was a kid; the inspiration his lab work, they are also his continuing obsession, his own kind of religion. He sees Sofi and, instantly, the eyes have it.
Mike Cahill’s I Origins (as in “Eye Origins”) is a science-fiction thriller, with emphasis on the science, and a rapturous love story — perhaps a ghost story, in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and David O. Selznick’s 1948 Portrait of Jennie. It leads viewers deep into the Ian-Sofi affair in the familiar confines of New York City, then dares a shocking, mid-film twist and spins defiantly off-kilter; it treks to Idaho and India, introducing plot strands of autism, Hinduism and elevator-phobia. I Origins is like a movie and its weird sequel — almost its antithesis — all in 105 minutes. But you needn’t buy Cahill’s complex, occasionally contradictory thesis in its entirety to find this one of the most ambitious, fascinating and weirdly endearing films of recent vintage.
Cahill’s text is the highly debatable adage, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” A scientist like Ian would say, “What soul?” Yet he is persuaded that the eyes are the key to the human personality: eye-dentity. Governments and corporations use iris recognition as the new ID card, a form of biometric identification. Is each pair of eyes unique? Or, if two people have eyes with the exact same aspects, are they similar in other ways? In their “soul”?
Ian and Sofi meet at a Halloween party in 2006, she outfitted in a black leather jacket, black stockings and a mask that exposes only her eyes. She’s a woman of mystery — he asks where she’s from, and she replies, “Another planet” — who has ferocious sex with him in a bathroom at the party, then disappears. They meet again, by chance or destiny, on a Brooklyn elevated subway car, where she offers him a Mento and he slips his headset on her to hear “Dust It Off.” She is so seductively other that, when she suggests he move into her place. the startled Ian says, “You have a place?” She has a place, all right: in his heart, now and forever.
Back in the lab, Ian’s brilliant assistant Karen (Brit Marling) has come close to a breakthrough in their research. She tells this to Ian on the day he and Sofi have decided to marry but must wait 24 hours while their license application is approved. Visiting the lab in her wedding dress, Sofi is horrified by the experimentation on mice, equating him with the mad scientist Victor Frankenstein when she says, “I think it’s dangerous to play God.” Ian would never play an entity he’s sure doesn’t exist; he’s really playing Richard Dawkins, the renowned Oxford scientist and atheist on whom Cahill says he fashioned Ian’s character. (We’d guess that Dawkins would not wholly approve of the portrait.)
(READ: Mary Pols’ interview with Brit Marling)
Sofi also detects a warming connection between Ian and Karen. Both wear glasses — which, the movie suggests, hides their own feelings. Their reliance on provable facts may have made them myopic. But noticing their intimate involvement in their work, Sofi can intuit a potential rival in Karen; she may not be Ian’s soul mate but could be a congenial life partner. That comes to pass in the film’s second half, seven years later, when he is now “Doctor Ian Gray” (he keeps calling himself that, as most Ph.D.s wouldn’t) and Karen is his pregnant wife. Tests on the infant will lead Ian on his world tour of eye examinations.
Cahill, who investigated a similar blend of science and spirituality in his first feature, Another Earth, turns I Origins into its own sophisticated eye test. At certain moments Ian will stand in the foreground as the people in an urban streetscape — Brooklyn, Delhi — proceed in hallucinogenic slow motion. A passing el train throws eerie, elusive shadows on a tenement building. Images will occasionally show white circles, like the flare in eyes exposed to harsh sunlight. Hundreds of photos of eyes lead you into mystery and toward a resolution. (Stick around for the climactic “eyes test” at the very end of the final credits; it points to a possible, even stranger sequel.) Besides the picture quizzes, I Origins plays a numbers game: On November 11th, Ian buys a lottery ticket at 11:11 a.m. and emerges from the bodega to see a #11 bus. (Eleven is 1-1, or eye-eye.)
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of the Mike Cahill–Brit Marling Another Earth)
Engaging the eye, the brain and the emotions in huge, unpredictable measures, the movie benefits from the charm and commitment of most of its actors. Pitt, who plays Jimmy Darmody on Boardwalk Empire, is a problem: his sullen, sluggish demeanor doesn’t jibe with Ian’s questing intellect and openness to revelation. But Marling, whom Hollywood is advised to steal from her exemplary work in indie films, invests her amalgam of intelligence and subtle sex appeal into a character always hovering near the movie’s central concerns. Those are confidently and mercurially held by Bergès-Frisbee, who was a nymph in the fourth Prates of the Caribbean movie and played the title role in Daniel Auteuil’s The Well Digger’s Daughter. She’s got a siren’s allure, a beguiling unworldliness; she might, as Sofi says at the start, come fro another planet, another time.
(READ: Corliss on Astrid Bergès-Frisbey in The Well Digger’s Daughter)
Plaudits also to Archie Panjali and the Indian girl Kashish, as two sympathetic souls Ian meets in Delhi. Both actresses possess the gravity and buoyancy to sell the film’s third act, in which I Origins returns to its beginning — to the swelling drone of Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” and the wispy promise of its lyrics: “I will see you in the next life.”
Believe who will; scoff who must. I’m a religious skeptic, but I Origins held me in its intense gaze. It’s the first movie since The Grand Budapest Hotel that made me want to see it again — see it more clearly — as soon as it ended.