Eyes Wide Shut is a fitting coda to director Stanley Kubrick's career
By Mark Jordan
JULY 26, 1999: The second most hyped film of the summer has no pod races or lightsaber duels or 8-foot-tall aliens with Jamaican inflections. It has no product tie-ins with cola companies or fast-food joints, and it is unlikely that its soundtrack, dominated by a jarring work from atonal-chromatic composer György Ligeti, will make it to the top of the charts.
But while lacking in the conventional elements of a modern-day blockbuster, Eyes Wide Shut does have enough of the old-fashioned media buzz elements to catapult it on to the front page of almost every major national publication. It features one of the world's biggest movie stars, Tom Cruise, and his glamorous actress wife, Nicole Kidman. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick, one of film's most celebrated (and obsessive) auteurs, who kept his stars under a cloud of near total secrecy for almost three years during production. Then, the night he reportedly completed his final cut of the film, the director died in his sleep. And if all that is not enough, there's the fact that the film deals with that most salacious of topics sex. And lots of it.
Still, it seems odd that such a widely anticipated film would come from Kubrick. His past work, successful though it has been, has never been particularly accessible. For one thing, his recent movies (by which I mean the mere five he's directed since 1968) are long, a tradition Eyes Wide Shut continues by clocking in at a leisurely 2 hours and 30 minutes. More important, especially at a time when producers are demanding films be dumbed down so that they can reach as wide an audience as possible, Kubrick is one of cinema's most vigorously, almost self-consciously intellectual filmmakers. This is the man, after all, who ended his science-fiction opus 2001: A Space Odyssey with a 30-minute, wordless film "poem."
Eyes Wide Shut is in that thought-provoking vein, but at the same time it is also an uncommonly humane and emotional film from a director often accused of having a cold, clinical eye.
"Inspired" by a short story by Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler, Eyes Wide Shut is a psychologically rich tale of sexual obsession. Cruise plays Dr. William Harford and Kidman his wife, Alice. The film opens provocatively, with Alice undressing before the camera as the couple prepare to go to a Christmas party being thrown by Victor Ziegler, played by director Sydney Pollack. At the party, both Harfords flirt with infidelity; she with an older Hungarian Lothario, he with two young models. The encounters spark an argument between the couple and a confession from Alice. A year earlier, she tells her husband, while the couple were vacationing with their young daughter, Alice saw a naval officer who inspired such lust in her that she would have risked everything for one night with him.
The revelation shatters William, previously so secure with the world and his place in it. Still raging with anger and jealousy, he is called out in the middle of the night to see a patient and begins a journey through New York City nightlife that grows increasingly erotic. By daybreak, however, it becomes clear that all the indulged passion he witnesses on his trip has a dark and dangerous side, which threatens not just his marriage but his life.
With a key suspenseful sequence, Eyes Wide Shut could be called an erotic thriller, but its thematic concerns are far deeper than the standard sex-charged murder mystery. A throughline in much of Kubrick's work has been that underneath the facade and artifice of cultured society the technology, the manners, etc. we are still primitive animals susceptible to our basest drives. As Kubrick shows us in 2001, the astronauts of the future are not that far removed from the primitive cavemen of the film's prologue. In Barry Lyndon, the title character uses the most ungentlemanly of means to become a gentleman of means. And it is the central irony of A Clockwork Orange that the ultra-violent hero is forcibly reformed only to become a victim of respected society. The difference with Eyes Wide Shut is that for the first time the instinct that threatens to surface is sexual, not violent.
William and Alice's and essentially, Kubrick's response to the danger of letting their passions overtake them also distinguishes Eyes Wide Shut. The effect makes this one of Kubrick's most moralistic films, not preachy but with a belief system that, however tenuously, holds the characters intact. In fact, William Harford may be Kubrick's most moral character since Kirk Douglas' French army officer in Paths Of Glory.
The problem with erotic art film, literature, or otherwise is that not everybody finds the same things erotic. And indeed, during a screening of Eyes Wide Shut, a female companion noted that this was obviously a male's take on sexuality. She noted that while naked females abounded, there were precious few male forms on screen. And the climactic orgy scene, she noted, was all male fantasy.
This long sequence, in which William sneaks into a wild costumed sex party held in a palatial country estate, is undoubtedly the film's most intriguing and confounding. Such scenes are a staple of erotic literature, and Kubrick's vision of one is strikingly rendered, as grotesque masks obscure the faces of all the participants. But it remains a conspicuously male construct.
The sequence is also marred by an instant in which Kubrick the film technician won out over Kubrick the artist. At one point in the sequence, William explores the various rooms of the mansion and discovers people in all manner of naked embrace. In order to get this scene past the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board, Kubrick agreed to obscure the sex. Long at the forefront of film's technical innovations, Kubrick had been studying computer-generated imagery for years for his aborted sci-fi project A.I. It was in Eyes Wide Shut, however, that Kubrick got to use the technology, digitally inserting people in front of the copulating figures. The effect is shoddily pulled off and frustrating to watch. Perhaps Kubrick realized the damage would be temporary; the European version remains intact, and subsequent video releases are sure to have the footage restored.
There are other, minor problems with Eyes Wide Shut. The script has a few notable holes, and the key motivational exchange between Cruise and Kidman feels contrived. Still, the stunning imagery, the overwhelming emotional weight of the film, and the ideas the film provokes carry the day.
The performances are all as fine as they need to be. But it is up to Cruise's William to carry the viewer through the story, and he does a marvelous job. Previously the master of the one-note performance, his work here proves the little lug can act.
In an ideal world, any artist's last work would be their masterpiece, a summation of all that came before and a pathway for those who follow. Eyes Wide Shut is not that. It is, however, another dark vision of human dilemma. Taken together with his other works, he has given us more than enough to think about.
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