Eyes Wide Shut

Co-written and directed by Stanley Kubrick

Jul 14, 1999 at 4:00 am

Eyes Wide Shut, the final motion picture from the late, great Stanley Kubrick, is easily the most anticipated adult film of the year. It's The Phantom Menace for grownups. Any film by the notoriously painstaking auteur would have achieved this status. Kubrick made only 13 features in his 46-year career, but his death in March, just after completing the movie, and the release of some shrewdly chosen excerpts of the film's stars making out, nude, in front of a mirror, have added significantly to the prerelease buzz. The result has been a rash of magazine covers accompanied by the usual blast of journalistic wind, leading at least one national weekly to ask whether the picture might not be "the sexiest ever."

The answer is, unfortunately, "not even close." Not that anyone should be surprised. This is, after all, a Stanley Kubrick picture, and therefore more clinical than sensual in its analysis of our sexual lives. It is, as his films usually are, dense, complex and challenging. It is also, sad to say, ponderous, often inscrutable and, ultimately, not much fun.

Set in contemporary Manhattan, the film focuses on the relationship between Dr. William Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman). From all appearances, the Harfords are a decent, loving couple, with one daughter, Helena (Madison Eginton), and a conventional, though ritzy, lifestyle. As the movie opens, it's the Christmas season, opening the door to the possibility that Kubrick intended his film to be a sort of modern-day variation on A Christmas Carol. Regardless, the film is meant to be seen as a cautionary tale on the themes of fidelity, temptation and desire.

In the beginning, relations between William and his wife seem nearly ideal. They attend a party at the home of a friend, Victor (played with worldly panache by Sydney Pollack), drink a little, flirt a little, go home and make love. (William has to do a little doctoring, too, when Victor's junkie girlfriend reacts badly to her speedball.) However, the next evening after they smoke a little pot to loosen up for another lovemaking session, Alice becomes angry and aggressive, launching into a long monologue about a powerful sexual fantasy about a naval officer.

This extended monologue — which the actress delivers during a deluge of complex emotion ranging from disdain to revulsion — is Kidman's finest moment in an otherwise unremarkable and at times irritating performance. (She makes a very silly drunk.) From this point on, the film leaves the waking, so-called real world and enters a world that looks real but may or may not be a dream. (The movie was inspired by a short fiction by Arthur Schnitzler, who was a contemporary of Freud.)

If this sounds confusing, it is, and intentionally so. Maybe it was the pot, or maybe the dream began long before that, but after Alice tells her husband about her naval fantasy, the world around him is no longer the same. During a visit to the home of a recently deceased patient, he comforts the man's daughter, only to have her pledge her undying devotion. Afterward, on the street, a prostitute invites him home. (Only a last-minute cell-phone call from his wife prevents the consummation of their deal.) Everywhere he goes, he is tempted. And why not give in?, he asks himself, his head filled with visions of his wife in bed with her handsome naval officer.

This clumsily executed vision — shot in music-video style black-and-white — features the most amateurish images in Kubrick's career. Throughout, the filmmaking seems flat and unimaginative. The editing, especially, appears ham-handed, always jumping the gun and cutting away impatiently, prematurely. Overall, the film qualifies as one of the least impressive efforts by a great director in recent memory.

The movie's pivotal sequence may be its most embarrassing. By chance, the address and password for a secret society fall into William's lap. Meeting at a different, highly classified location every time, the group offers an opportunity for its members — who dress in black ties, hooded capes and masks — to live out their deepest, most private sexual fantasies in public with the promise of complete anonymity. William, though, is not a member and, after being found out, is apparently on the brink of losing his life at the hands of these very touchy revelers.

Rather than give away what happens next, suffice it to say that the good doctor manages to get away unharmed. He has, however, had an opportunity to look into a hellish pit of promiscuity and vice and has been deeply scared by the experience. The audience, though, may feel more like laughing at these absurdly contrived sexual sideshows. There can't be that many people who would want their orgies to take on the trappings of some wayward sect of the Catholic Church, with red-robed bishops, incense, chanting and all the rest. And though the membership is supposedly made up of the highest of high rollers, the sexual program is just slightly racier than what you'd find at any strip joint. By and large, it just looks awkward and comical.

Throughout these events, Cruise mostly looks confused (and we share the feeling). If there had been anything like a logical emotional progression in his performance, the film might have accumulated some dramatic momentum and suspense, but, alas, our forever boyish star just can't deliver. At moments like the one in which he goes to examine the corpse of a junkie who, perhaps, is the woman who rescued him from the angry group the night before, his actions are totally baffling.

And so are Kubrick's, until the picture's final scene, when he decides he needs to wrap everything up in a nice, neat little package. His mouthpiece is Alice, who tells her husband that maybe all they've been going through is just a dream. But as we all know, a dream is never just a dream. And maybe, now that they are awake, what they should feel is grateful: grateful that they have been able to survive all the temptations placed in their paths, to be together after all their adventures. The audience, of course, wonders: What temptations? What adventures? From where we sit, their only challenge was a couple of mildly bad dreams. No real danger threatened them, and nothing really was at stake.

What is interesting, though, is that at least in subject matter, Eyes Wide Shut deals more with the problems of normal, everyday life than perhaps any movie Kubrick has ever made. In this sense, it is his most personal, most mature work. Unfortunately, what it reveals is that of all the subjects he might have chosen, this was the one about which he was least familiar. As a result, Eyes Wide Shut comes off as an attempt by the director, near the end of his life, to come to terms not with the future, or outer space, or creation, or war, but something so small and vital as the emotional life of a couple. Perhaps it was his attempt to return to the real world of feelings and emotions.

This makes his failure here — and his death — all the more poignant. As a filmmaker, he was still young. The saddest fact is that we will never know whether, indeed, this film signaled a change of direction, or whether he would in subsequent films have blasted off again into other worlds. And for that we can never feel grateful.