The combination of sex and death (have I got your attention yet?) has always tantalized artists, especially as they age, and, if “Eyes Wide Shut” is any indication, most especially Stanley Kubrick.
Far from the hot date-night movie the racy Warner Bros. campaign would have you expect, Kubrick’s last film, completed just before his death and starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as a married couple who stumble onto the edge of a terrible moral abyss, is a strange, somber and troubling meditation on jealousy, obsession and (yes) sex and death. More European than Hollywood in tone, it’s half brilliant, half banal, but always the work of a master director whose output has gotten increasingly distant and self-involved over the years--and not always to our benefit.
After turning out seven features in the first decade of his career, Kubrick directed only six more times in his final 35 years, and his last films, including costume drama “Barry Lyndon,” horror film “The Shining” and war movie “Full Metal Jacket,” have all been determinedly off the beat of genre expectations.
Written by Kubrick and veteran screenwriter Frederic Raphael (“Darling,” “Two for the Road”), “Eyes Wide Shut” follows that pattern and, like those predecessors, makes its strongest impression not with dialogue but with virtuoso visual work. Despite all the time spent on the script (the numberless rewrites and rehearsals began three years ago), whenever the film has to depend on the written word for its effects the results tend to be unconvincing.
But when Kubrick, as in the dark and unnerving film-within-a-film orgy scene that is “Eyes Wide Shut’s” centerpiece, cuts words to a minimum and uses pure cinematic technique to go to the core of his emotions, what results has the powerful, lacerating impact of inescapable nightmare. This is finally a film that is better at mood than substance, that has its strongest hold on you when it’s making the least amount of sense.
“Eyes Wide Shut” is based on “Traumnovelle” (Dream Story), a 1926 novella byArthur Schnitzler, a Viennese writer who was influenced by Sigmund Freud, his contemporary. Like Clint Eastwood holding onto “Unforgiven” until the time was right, Kubrick has controlled the rights to the work for decades. And it’s a mark of how much the novella touched him, how much of a soul mate he felt he’d found in Schnitzler (whose David Hare-adapted “The Blue Room” starred Kidman on the London and New York stage) that he’s kept all “Traumnovelle’s” major plot points intact and even been faithful in smaller areas, like the number of off-screen children a subsidiary character has.
What Kubrick must have connected with, aside from the novella’s elusiveness, lack of structural rigor and a belief that “no dream is entirely a dream,” was its air of sexual yearning and imminent death. He and Raphael moved the plot to contemporary Manhattan but kept the novella’s sense of sexual experience that is just out of reach as well as the possibility that the happy life of Dr. William Harford (Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Kidman), is no more than a thin, “Matrix"-like veneer over a caldron of fear and desire.
Ever the showman, Kubrick starts “Eyes Wide Shut” with a startling shot of a completely nude Alice dropping her dress to the bathroom floor as she prepares for a black-tie holiday party given by one of her husband’s patients, New York power broker Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack, who inherited the part when Harvey Keitel left the project).
At the ball itself (shot by Kubrick and his lighting cameraman Larry Smith in sweeping tracking shots), both Alice and her husband, married nine years with a 7-year-old daughter, engage in desultory flirtation. He chats with a pair of models (is no New York party complete without them?), she with Sandor Szavost (Sky Dumont), the most unctuous of Hungarian Lotharios, who tells her, oozing ersatz worldliness, “Don’t you think one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties.”
Harford, meanwhile, has separate adventures. He reconnects with an old medical school classmate, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field of “Ruby in Paradise”), now a piano player for hire. And he’s called upstairs to Ziegler’s private apartment, where a beautiful nude woman has had a bad reaction to an unwise combination of drugs and nearly died.
Later, in a party post-mortem held under the influence of marijuana, Alice and her husband get into an argument and she ends up relating something she experienced during a recent vacation taken together in Cape Cod. She saw a handsome naval officer in the lobby, and though they never so much as exchanged a word, Alice knew that if he’d wanted her she would have sacrificed everything, even her marriage if necessary, for those fleeting moments of passion.
That speech, one of a pair of affecting monologues the actress makes good use of, is close enough to Schnitzler to borrow phrases from the novella, and, as in the book, Alice’s husband is shocked by his wife’s bold candor about her sexual fantasies. He’s almost immediately called out to make an appearance at the apartment of a wealthy patient who just died, but he’s tormented by fantasies of the sexual encounter that never happened between his wife and the handsome naval officer, fantasies that Kubrick shoots in flickering black-and-white snippets that consciously call to mind old-fashioned stag movies.
Those moments point up the film’s strangest aspect, its frankly voyeuristic quality. Given that Cruise and Kidman are married, its inevitable that we feel like we’re eavesdropping on their lives, a feeling that is more disconcerting than pleasant, especially in the brief amorous embrace (to a marvelous phrase from Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing”) that has been featured in almost all the film’s publicity. Other married couples have played married couples on screen (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton coming most famously to mind) and it often is a dicey, disconcerting business, something Kubrick in his own odd way may have counted on.
Propositioned on an All-Night Ramble
Feeling his world is shattered, Harford embarks on a solitary journey, an all-night ramble through a dreamlike world of elusive sexual potential. The daughter of his dead patient (Marie Richardson, a favorite of Ingmar Bergman’s and a late replacement for Jennifer Jason Leigh) propositions him, as does Domino (Vinessa Shaw), surely New York’s most genteel and caring streetwalker.
These early sequences, frankly, all have a marking-time feeling about them, and the reason is not hard to discern. In “Eyes Wide Open,” screenwriter Raphael’s just-published memoir of working with Kubrick, he accurately notes that the director “seemed not very interested in words. . . . I slowly came to realize that . . . he was not even eager that the characters should have any particular personality: He would as soon have types as individuals with specific histories.”
While it’s fascinating to speculate where this tendency toward the generic comes from (perhaps having made the emotional connections in his head Kubrick saw no need to put them on screen for the rest of us or else didn’t realize he hadn’t), its impact is clear: The script keeps everyone at an emotional remove, and empathetic connection with the characters happens much less often than you’d imagine.
Screenwriter Raphael has his own idea about why Kubrick did this and it is a shrewd one: “Film alone was his art form . . . Kubrick wanted to show, not tell.” And the director, who lit every scene in “Eyes Wide Shut” himself, is a brilliant visualizer with the skill to make New York City streets created on a British sound stage look like the real thing. He has pointed this entire film toward its orgy scene, and that’s where his gifts show to their fullest advantage.
Harford hears about the orgy during his late-night wanderings when he runs into old friend Nick, who’s scheduled to play piano at the event. Nick tells him where it is and how to get in, and after procuring (in one of the film’s many unsettling and unsatisfying moments) the necessary mask and disguise from gruff costumer Milich (Rade Sherbedgia) and his sexually precocious and probably deranged daughter (Leelee Sobieski), the doctor takes a cab out to the secret site on Long Island.
Because Kubrick is working with the elements of film he loves best, including a brilliantly disturbing score by Jocelyn Pook and costumes topped by disconcerting Venetian carnival masks, the director is for once able to create exactly the nightmarish texture he’s seeking. For though lascivious thoughts initially motivated Harford, once inside the secret doors the mood abruptly changes, in true nightmare fashion, to one of sheer, uncontrollable terror. It’s an extended sequence that cuts so close to the bone it’s hard not to feel that elements of the filmmaker’s own secret terrors are finding their way on screen as well.
Scenes Obstructed for U.S. Viewers
Though this has to be one of the least erotic orgies ever filmed, there is enough strenuously simulated sex present for the MPAA to demand some changes. While the sex will remain in the European version, domestic viewers will have their views strategically obstructed by orgy-goers electronically dropped into the scene. Technology in the service of prudery is apparently no vice.
The orgy also features considerable full frontal female nudity, and in fact female (never male) nudity is a leitmotif of the entire production. Even at the orgy, however, that material is more wistful than lascivious in tone, the luxuriating of an older director in a fading dream that’s reminiscent of the late paintings of artists like Rembrandt, Renoir and Picasso rather than the lecherous ogling of more priapic filmmakers.
Like a brutal, claustrophobic black cloud, the orgy sequence, which comes about midway in the film, casts its powerful shadow over the rest of “Eyes Wide Shut,” making everything, including the other strong Kidman monologue, darker and more troubling than it otherwise would be. It’s so strong, so strange, that when the filmmakers attempt to use the Ziegler character (the only major one not to appear in the novella) to explain what happened, to make that evening’s events conform to everyday logic, you wish they hadn’t even tried.
Though it’s very different in numerous ways, “Eyes Wide Shut” strongly brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Vertigo.” In both films, the feeling is inescapable that a forceful, idiosyncratic director is using the resources of a major studio and the top stars of the day to in essence work out intensely personal preoccupations and obsessions, to explore his own fears, fantasies and midnight terrors. For better or worse, there’s probably no other director working today who would want to--or could get away with--doing that on such a major scale.
Speaking of stars, both Kidman and Cruise are absorbing and acquit themselves quite well in their parts, but it’s frankly not in the cards for any actor to figure prominently in discussions about “Eyes Wide Shut.” Partly that’s because of the script’s purposefully generic nature, with one person being little more than the object of jealousy, the other the one who gets jealous. But more than that, when you work with Kubrick, it’s always the director, never the actors, who is the real star. That can lead a film up or down or, as it does here, in both directions at the same time.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug-related material. Times guidelines: explicit but not erotic, with seriously adult themes.
‘Eyes Wide Shut’
Tom Cruise: Dr. William Harford
Nicole Kidman: Alice Harford
Sydney Pollack: Victor Ziegler
Marie Richardson: Marion
A Hobby Films Ltd. film, a Pole Star production, released by Warner Bros. Director Stanley Kubrick. Producer Stanley Kubrick. Executive producer Jan Harlan. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederick Raphael, inspired by “Traumnovelle” by Arthur Schnitzler. Lighting cameraman Larry Smith. Editor Nigel Galt. Costumes Marit Allen. Music Jocelyn Pook. Production design Les Tomkins, Roy Walker. Art director John Fenner. Set decorators Terry Wells Sr., Lisa Leone. Running time: 2 hours, 39 minutes.
In general release.