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Eyes Wide Shut

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 16 July 1999

  Directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman,
Sydney Pollack, Sky Dumont,
Marie Richardson, Thomas Gibson,
Todd Field, Vinessa Shaw,
Rade Sherbedgia, Leelee Sobieski,
Fay Masterson and Alan Cumming.

Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick
and Frederic Raphael,
based on "Traumnovelle"
by Arthur Schnitzler

"Looks like life, eh?"

In his films, Stanley Kubrick could combine both a sense of mystery and wonderment, whether it be wonder of the cosmos (2001), of the human spirit (Spartacus), or of catastrophe (A Clockwork Orange, Dr. Strangelove). But sometime after Clockwork Orange, the wonderment began falling away, leaving only mystery. The aristocratic characters in Barry Lyndon moved with such glacial poise that they sometimes appeared no more animated than the mannequins which a character in Eyes Wide Shut refers to in the dialogue, above. In the instance of Barry Lyndon, though, it could be interpreted within the context of social status. But one wondered if Kubrick was losing interest, or was even losing touch with, the human condition. Eyes Wide Shut, the great director's last, black valentine to the world, is the film where the mysteries finally become enveloped themselves within mystery.

But, first things first: There are no scenes, in the new film, filmed at Madame Jojo's, the London transvestite club, and Tom Cruise does not appear in a dress. (Drat!) Tom and Nicole do not shoot-up on heroin, though they do a little pot in one scene. There is nothing resembling the scene for which Harvey Keitel was allegedly "fired" from the film (and I don't see how it could possibly have fit within the story structure of the movie). Jennifer Jason Leigh is also totally absent from the film, although the scene where she would have appeared is so negligible that it could have been dropped from the film altogether. No scenes where Tom and Nicole have intercourse while other people sit nearby and watch, either. Only tiny parts of the film are in black-and-white, while the rest is in color. None of the music by UK rap musician Goldie has made it into the final cut, although, after listening to some of the oppressively ominous music composed by Jocelyn Pook, I almost wish that it had. There is nudity, but not very much sex, which has been carefully shielded from our delicate eyes. And if there are two endings, I wouldn't worry, because the one that has been used works just fine.

The film opens with the Hartfords, Bill (Tom Cruise) and Alice (Nicole Kidman), as they prepare to leave their upper-class New York apartment to attend a swanky Christmas party. Alice dances with a handsome stranger (European film and TV actor Sky Dumont) who murmurs to her that he is supposed to be a titled nobleman; Bill chats it up with two slim, gorgeous young women, one on either arm. When they get home, it is suggested that their flirtatious encounters with other people are what is fueling their personal life; as her husband comes up from behind and kisses her, Alice looks at him in the mirror with the same fantastically glittering gaze that she had turned on him earlier that evening while he was with the two women and she was dancing with the man.

Later, when he asks her if she was the least bit tempted to sleep with a stranger, and she says no, Bill doesn't believe her. She, in turn, asks him if he, as a physician, is ever the least bit tempted by the women whom he routinely examines. Bill replies with the classic male egoist's retort: it's not the same with men as it is with women. To which Alice replies that, on a recent vacation with Bill, she was thinking of another man during the entire time that she was with him, and Bill didn't have the least bit notion of it. Bill is still obsessing about this the following evening when, called away from the house, he happens to meet an old friend, a jazz pianist (Todd Field, looking very hep), which in turn leads to a series of chance encounters where Bill is not only tempted by women and the promise of sex, but is drawn deeper and deeper into circumstances which turn out to be increasingly dangerous.

Kubrick worked on this film for over two years, with rehearsals starting in October, 1996, and principal photography beginning in September. That stage of production didn't end until June of last year. During that time, Kubrick recreated New York's Greenwich Village in sections of London, a recreation that is so accurate that you wouldn't believe the scenes were filmed in London unless you knew in advance. (Credit for this goes to the production designers, Les Tomkins and Roy Walker, and the supervising art director, Kevin Phipps, among others.) Two of the main actors, Keitel and Leigh, were replaced because they could not come back for reshoots. Some of the actors, such as Todd Field, weren't even sure if they were still in the film after it had started post-production.

But one thing keeps coming up time and again in notes I made after viewing the film: What drew Kubrick to this material? Frederic Raphael has said that, after initially reading "Traumnovelle," the 1926 novella by Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler, he was asked by Kubrick if the action could be relocated to present-day New York City. Raphael replied that it was worth a try, but had not things changed since turn of the century Vienna, the setting of Schnitzler's story, particularly between men and women? "Think so?" Kubrick is said to have replied. "I don't think so."

So it comes both as a surprise, and not as a surprise, that Eyes Wide Shut is remarkably faithful to Schnitzler's original plot, right down to the sequence of events that make up Bill's nocturnal odyssey. Schnitzler's story took place during a time when sex was something that was not spoken of or dealt with openly, and when a rigid set of social conventions was in place, making what happens to the novel's protagonist seem more and more like manifestations of his psychic. The one link between then and now is that he is propelled by a very masculine sort of outrage: that a woman can be unfaithful to him in her mind, no matter how much control he has over her otherwise.

Nicole Kidman does an extraordinary job in delivering two long, difficult monologues in Eyes Wide Shut, the first of which is easily on a par with Ingrid Thulin's famous, confessional scene in Persona. (Kidman also gets the film's last line, which is a doozy.) She also invests her character with a suggestion of deep emotions which could come welling up, suddenly and terrifyingly, at any time without notice. But if this is a movie about the dual nature of modern relationships -- of how people who have been married to each other for a long time may not know each other as well as they think they do -- then Kubrick has told only half of the story. For the focus of the movie, for the most part, is squarely upon male desires and male fantasies, whether they be for the female body, which is often on copious display, or on the various ways in which different women approach him: the daughter (Marie Richardson, in the role Leigh was to have played) of one of Bill's patients, a prostitute (Vinessa Shaw) who refuses to take money from him, and a demented underage girl (Leelee Sobieski, who has rapidly become a Talent to Watch, in a fleeting but memorable appearance), and one man, played, in a beautifully fine-tuned performance, by Alan Cumming. Later on, an anonymous woman will, literally, offer to sacrifice herself on Bill's behalf. During all this, the movie shows Kidman's character as the dutiful wife, accompanying her husband, helping their daughter with homework, preparing meals, sitting at home by the phone. She is supposed to manage an art gallery, but we are never shown anything related to her work (there are some paintings on display in the Hartfords' apartment, some of which were executed by Kubrick's wife, Christiane, an artist in her own right). But we never find out what her fantasy life may be like, or whether she has been approached by any men, making the film seem one-sided and a little presumptuous.

Which leads us to the second thing which people are going to be talking about concerning this movie, after Kidman's monologue scenes, which is the masked party where Bill's friend, the pianist, plays music while blindfolded, so he can't see what the guests are up to (the blindfold "slipped" one time, though, which is how he gets Bill interested in attending). Bill takes a cab ride from midtown Manhattan to a gated country mansion (Long Island? Westchester?), where he is admitted by password. After donning his disguise, he is let inside, to where the other revelers are solemnly assembled, wearing cloaks and masks which look decidedly like those worn by people attending the Venice Carnevale three-quarters of a century ago. Upon cue, some of the participants step forward and ritualistically disrobe; then, they are paired up and, in the various rooms of the house, high-ceilinged and with inlaid floors, the naked but still masked women have-at-it with other men, while other masked people look on.

In Schnitzler's novel, this masked debauch did not seem out of place because, at the turn of the century, people still gave masked parties, and there was the idea of "noblesse oblige", of the upper classes pleasuring themselves behind closed doors because they were protected by privilege and station. In Eyes Wide Shut, it is suggested that the whole thing may possibly be the product of Bill's mind, brought on by the strong feelings provoked in him by his wife. But why would a young, American-born man be having fantasies that take the form of masked people in Old Europe-style houses? There is nothing in Bill's character that would suggest this. And Tom Cruise looks like he had an awful time trying to figure out how to get this character to work on-screen. The result is, for the most part, an unusually subdued, even inert performance. Bill Hartford passes through a series of situations where he looks, but doesn't touch: he visits a prostitute, but does nothing; he recoils when Sobieski's character provocatively bats her eyelashes at him; and he never gets a chance to horse around at the masked party, which is as serious as the convening of a coven (Kubrick's ability to lend events the sustained, anticipatory atmosphere that we have come to know and expect of his work is at its most strongest in this sequence. A lot of people are going to read things into this film based on the atmosphere alone). He is never put into a situation where he gets to act out his feelings. Instead, he's virtually passive, but the story ends up calling on him to act guilty and anguished, anyway, as if he committed something horrendously wrong, which is what must have flummoxed Cruise the most.

So the question remains: whose sexual fantasies are we looking at, anyway? The cinematography, by Larry Smith, gives the film a dark, grainy look -- the main colors are golds, mahoganies, and charcoal-blacks -- that lands somewhere between humus and hermetic, something that only lifts slightly when Bill, the day after his bizarre night, tries to retrace his steps, only to discover that he may have misconstrued or misinterpreted everything that happened to him. By the time Bill finally goes back to picking up where he left off with his marriage to Alice, one's reaction to his plight is ambivalent. It seems like Tom Cruise doesn't have a role in this picture, he has a series of emotional responses, flirtatious and charming one moment, grave and apprehensive the next, with little idea of how they are all supposed to link-up together.

"Well, what you just described to me sounds like a cult movie," a friend of mine responded, after I gave him a brief rundown on the film. If you love films, and if you particularly love Kubrick films, this picture's probably gonna be buzzing around in your head for days on end, staying with you long after other movies have evaporated from memory, even though I can't honestly say that Eyes Wide Shut is a success. It is a film of mystery without meaning. It doesn't express any insights into how sex can define, and reveal, the nature of relationships or people -- nothing like Bertolucci's Last Tango or, especially, In the Realm of the Senses, which makes this film look like a game of whist, by comparison. What it does express, I'm afraid, is its director's ultimate estrangement from life and from other people -- and a dream of an ornate house and some tawdry goings-on in it inside his head. If anyone's eyes are shut in this movie, they were Kubrick's.


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