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The Boston Phoenix Shut and Dried

Stanley Kubrick closes his career with wide open "Eyes"

By Peter Keough

JULY 26, 1999:  One thing is clear from Stanley Kubrick's last film, the enigmatic and phlegmatic Eyes Wide Shut -- the late director admired Nicole Kidman's butt almost as much as she does. It's one of the first images in the film, as her character, Alice Harford, poses before a mirror and drops her little black dress to disclose a tawny, well-toned derriere gleaming like the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Even the music is a Viennese-style waltz evoking "By the Beautiful Blue Danube."

But the unveiling is just a tease -- a cut is made to a black screen and the film's paradoxical title, setting up a pattern of desire and its frustration -- by repression, censorship, confusion, and plain old ineptitude. Despite its masterful come-on promotion, Eyes Wide Shut is a movie about not getting any.

That's especially true for viewers, who will find their various expectations of this final film directed by one of the world's great artists (and starring two of the world's most visible celebrities) attenuated and denied. Voyeurism, closure, coherence, catharsis -- Eyes offers them long enough to titillate but not fulfill. In this sense it epitomizes the director's career, 13 films that toy with passion, play with profundity, but wind up in a labyrinth of dead-end meaning and feeling. The frozen face of Jack Nicholson in the maze concluding The Shining (1980), the beaming face of the newborn Star Child at the end of 2001, the gilded mask on the pillow at the end of Eyes -- all regard their unfathomable worlds with Olympian detachment and irony.

What would Kubrick be without the saving grace of irony? Perhaps a greater filmmaker. Take the final sequence in Paths of Glory (1958), in which French troops fresh from the trenches are overcome by a song sung by a captured German girl (the actress who played the role, Susanne Christian, would be Kubrick's wife for the last 40 years of his life). Somehow, a woman almost always lies at the heart of his film's convolutions and convulsions, the seeming passive object, like the near-nude ballerina taunting the "cured" Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971), who in fact is the prime manipulator, unmoved by the eyes of the beholder.

"How do I look?", Alice asks of her physician husband Bill (Tom Cruise, varying in expression from mask-like impassivity to a manic grin) as she sits on the pot and he preens with his bow tie, hogging her looking glass. He answers without a glance, and it's apparent that this is a marriage in trouble, despite lovely daughter Helena (Madison Eginton) and the sprawling Central Park West apartment that unrolls before Kubrick's tracking camera like the hotel corridors of The Shining. Already Eyes seems in the world of dreams -- how does Bill, apparently a mere GP, afford all this? House calls on the rich and mysterious, apparently, such as Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), a Manhattan nabob for whose big wingding Bill and Alice are dressing.

The champagne and gauzy gold lighting take their toll on Alice, who falls into the clutches of Sandor (Sky Dumont), an aging Eurotrash lothario who wants to take her upstairs and show her Ziegler's "Renaissance bronzes." Instead it's Bill who makes the trip, plucked from the arms of a pair of models who want to take him where "the rainbow ends" -- he's needed to tend to a guest. Naked and semi-conscious from an overdose, in a posture mimicking a painting on the wall, Mandy (Julienne Davis) responds to Bill's requests that she open her eyes. Ziegler (Pollack a frightening sight in suspenders with no shirt) is grateful, and the Harfords leave the party with their virtue, if not their peace of mind, intact.

Stimulated by the forbidden, they dance naked before a mirror (Kidman's butt once more, familiar to those who have seen the film's trailer), tentative foreplay climaxed by a black screen. But the next day, when Alice returns to her looking glass and takes out a stash of dope from the medicine cabinet, her thoughts have turned to infidelity and unfulfilled desire -- specifically a handsome naval officer whom she eyed once in a hotel and lusted after. She relates the story as a coup de grace in the couple's giggly, insidious argument about the meaning of love and sex for men and women, an argument that's interrupted by the telephone, not the only time this plot device is employed. A patient has died, and Bill is obliged to journey into the night.

So begins the "traum" part of this adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 novella Traumnovelle. Slumped in the back seat of a cab, Bill fantasizes in black and white about Alice's being mauled by the officer, and in a sense he never really leaves that taxi. Each subsequent stop seems another stage in a dream, a textbook case for Schnitzler's big fan Sigmund Freud, and one taking on at its best the nightmarish precision of a tale by Schnitzler's Prague coeval Franz Kafka.

Such as the scene by Bill's patient's deathbed, in which the deceased's distracted daughter (Marie Richardson) abruptly kisses him and confesses her love. So much for the superego. Bill is left an easy target for streetwalker Domino (Vinessa Shaw) -- especially after being roughed up by gay-bashers in one of the film's slyer digs at Cruise's tabloid traumas. Alluding perhaps to the opening movement of Max Ophuls's adaptation of Schnitzler's La ronde (last seen on stage with Kidman's butt as The Blue Room), Kubrick -- who admired Ophuls and imitated him in camera movement if not in movements of the soul -- has Domino invite Bill to "come inside with her," an attempted coupling that's disrupted when that damned cell phone rings again and Alice asks when Bill's coming home.

But what the dream censor denies must surface again in another form. Following up on a tip from Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), a med-school chum now a fly-by-night piano player, Bill heads for a mysterious private masked ball and decadent orgy out in the boondocks. Armed with the password ("Fidelio") and a mask and cape obtained at "Rainbow Fashions" (this sequence, featuring the great Yugoslavian actor Rade Sherbedgia, is a mini-masterpiece of surreal absurdism that makes the rest of the film irrelevant), he takes a cab -- the same as before? -- to the fancy mansion and the movie's big payoff.

Here is where the irony thing becomes a problem. How seriously are we to take this trite and overwrought adolescent fantasy with chanting monks, incense, and leggy babes wearing only high heels, headdresses, and false faces? Is Bill's disguise supposed to make him look like Emperor Palatine from Star Wars? Has the guy in the tricorn and death mask hovering in the balcony dropped in from Amadeus? And why does the masked beauty who offers to "redeem" him resemble Cher from the 1985 Oscars?

True, nearly every Kubrick film contains at least an element of parody. The closer he gets to taboo topics of sex and death, as in Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and A Clockwork Orange, the thicker the caricature. But here the satire doesn't seem entirely intentional. The insertion of digitalized fig-leaf figures to earn the film an R rating doesn't help (though it does play on the themes of desire and repression), but the feckless orgy sequence would be a tonal and atmospheric disaster anyway. Ludicrous and banal rather than seductive and sinister, it's a lapse in inspiration from which Eyes Wide Shut never recovers.

Part of the problem, too, is that Alice never ventures out to this wonderland. Kidman is kittenish, subtle, and suggestive in her performance, but her character spends almost the entire film drunk, stoned, asleep, or just waking up -- not just passive, but inert and incoherent. Moreover her imagined experiences -- especially in a polymorphously perverse dream epitomizing male fears of female sexuality -- roughly parallel Bill's bumbling misadventures.

Perhaps this is all because she's actually the film's main character, spinning out the dream that Bill must suffer. She gets laid not only in her dreams but in her husband's; meanwhile poor Bill is tempted, foiled, humiliated, and finally redeemed by his wife's scathing laughter. Such an interpretation would be in keeping with the claustrophobic solipsism of the Kubrick canon, his merging of carnality and mortality, his embrace of the fleeting pathos and absurdity of the individual and of an indifferent universe where death and the maiden are one and the mask covers a raging void.

What does it mean? Since the world doesn't add up in the end, why should his pictures? This one, however, doesn't amount to much of anything, either. Despite Ziegler's attempt to reveal the truth in a coda more anticlimactic than that of Psycho, Eyes' ambiguity remains an inane blur.

Not so the box office. As was the case with Star Wars, the hype for Eyes makes the movie almost an afterthought. The protracted production, the scandalous rumors of on-the-set shenanigans, the sudden death of the director were not planned, of course. But what of the teasing "unauthorized" pre-release review in the London Evening Standard, or the cover story and rave "preview" in Time magazine, the corporate affiliate of the studio that released the film? With an opening-weekend gross of $22.8 million, Eyes promises to be the most lucrative and artistically mediocre achievement of Stanley Kubrick's career. When the year 2001 finally arrives, it appears the late genius's artistic legacy might be overshadowed by the studio monolith he thwarted in his lifetime.


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