Eyes Wide Shut

As a die-hard fan of the work of Stanley Kubrick, I thoroughly enjoyed his swan song Eyes Wide Shut, but I have my doubts as to what the general public — those not already attuned to Kubrick’s style and rhythm — will make of it. Will they simply respond to the plot? There really isn’t one. Will they go expecting Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to show us all what they do in the privacy of their own bedroom? They don’t — except for that kissing-in-front-of-the-mirror scene most people have seen anyway. In fact, it now seems clear that Kubrick may have cast Cruise and Kidman as a sort of conceptual prank: the hottest married couple in movies, and they’re apart for most of the film.

Eyes Wide Shut is an exquisitely stubborn work — a repressed erotic movie. Based more or less on Arthur Schnitzler’s tightly written 1926 novel Traumnovelle (or Rhapsody: A Dream Novel), the screenplay by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael follows Cruise’s character, Dr. Bill Harford, on two long and bruising nights after his wife Alice (Kidman) has confessed to having sexual fantasies about a man who once caught her eye. Bill, conflicted and haunted by his visions of his wife in bed with another man, goes forth into the New York night and does … well, not much. Part of the sly joke of the book and the movie is that its main characters haven’t done anything to feel guilty about. The shame derives from the erotic theater of the mind.

The story is essentially a psychological odyssey and won’t hold up under literal-minded scrutiny. Kubrick’s “New York” is a soundstage New York, created in London (of course) and intended to stand in for any city, where the possibilities of both pleasure and pain are endless. Bill wanders about, running across a variety of available women who keep throwing themselves at him. In the film’s centerpiece, he finds himself at an orgy, a sort of mad ball in which anonymous people in masks and cloaks go at each other joylessly. The sequence, I think, is meant to dramatize the folly of sexual freedom, which can be another kind of prison. (For the record, the digitally inserted figures obscuring some of the action only serve to make the film dirtier, since your naughty imagination just fills in what’s being hidden.)

After the orgy, Eyes Wide Shut loses a little steam. Kubrick keeps his pace slow and steady, but the film slackens near the end when it should tighten (as it tightens in his other films); the last 20 minutes or so begin to wear you down. In particular, a billiard-table chat between Bill and a tycoon acquaintance (well played by Sydney Pollack) drags on as much as the men’s-room talk between Jack Torrance and Grady the waiter in The Shining, only without that scene’s sinister undertones. It’s especially wearying because nothing is disclosed in this dialogue that we haven’t already guessed. The final act of the master’s final film feels like a saddening winding-down — a loss of energy, a capitulation to convention.

On reflection, though, that may be what Kubrick intended. In the theater, I think this scene was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many viewers. We’re at the 2:20 point, we should be heading for the home stretch, and along comes Sydney Pollack to tell us a lot of shit that doesn’t especially affect anything. In fact, what he says raises more questions than it answers. I’m prepared to defend the scene: For one thing, it mocks the viewer’s need for resolution, by over-explicating in a way that doesn’t satisfy us (much as the shrink did at the end of Psycho). You keep waiting for a revelation that ties things together, but all Pollack says is that the death of a prostitute earlier in the movie had nothing to do with what went on at the orgy. Of course, he could also be full of shit. Bill spends about half an hour of screen time wandering around chasing a non-mystery, or at least a mystery that isn’t cleared up to our satisfaction.

Eyes Wide Shut obviously looks great, the slightly saturated images unfolding smoothly and meticulously. And Kubrick gets avid performances from Cruise and Kidman, as well as a slew of supporting players — Marie Richardson as a grieving woman, Todd Field as a mysterious pianist, Vinessa Shaw as every man’s soft, pliant dream hooker, Leelee Sobieski conveying Lolita-esque naughtiness with a bare minimum of dialogue. One must remember, too, that Eyes Wide Shut is no more “about” its events than The Shining was “about” a haunted hotel or 2001 was “about” a space mission gone awry. Like all Kubrick’s films, this one will take time, and multiple viewings, to yield up its full meaning and resonance. Armed as I am with just one viewing under my belt, I can confidently say it’s a worthy capper to a great body of work.

Explore posts in the same categories: kubrick, tspdt

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