Eyes Wide Shut
As everybody knows by now, "Eyes Wide Shut" is the last film Stanley Kubrick made, in fact finished just four days before he died last March at the age of seventy. And as everybody also knows, it rivals only the current "Star Wars -- Episode One" for advance secrecy and hype.
So now that it's opened, we can examine it at our leisure. This is a film that asks the question: If you were wealthy, handsome Doctor William Harford, who happened to look exactly like Tom Cruise, and were married to the breathtakingly beautiful and sexy Alice, who happened to look exactly like Nicole Kidman, with whom you have great sex any time you want, would you still try desperately to get yourself laid? And fail? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. In fact, you would spend a long and frightening, dark night of the soul, trying and failing to do exactly that, and we would spend a long two and a half hours watching you. Talk about suspension of disbelief.
Let's go back. Arthur Schnitzler's story, updated by Kubrick and the old pro Frederic Raphael -- and read Raphael's piece on working with Kubrick, in The New Yorker -- tells of a couple who make the mistake of investing flirtatious thoughts, and the telling of them to their partner, with the awesome power of jealousy. We meet them in their Central Park West apartment as they're dressing for a Christmas-season party at Sydney Pollack's absolutely stunning apartment, which features, for example, window treatments that include acres of drapes made of nothing but a million little lights.
At the party, Alice dances with an elderly Hungarian roué, who presses her to sleep with him, while Dr.Bill finds himself arm in arm in arm with two delicious models who want to head to a quiet spot with him. Unfortunately he is called upstairs to treat a young woman who's just overdosed on a speedball either while or just after having sex with Sydney. Both Alice and Bill do make it home safely, but a chance encounter for Bill at the party with Nick Nightingale (pay attention to names in this film), an old medical school classmate who's now playing piano for a living, takes him down that long and winding road, the one that every adolescent boy dreams of, namely getting laid at an orgy.
And in fact that old pianist friend has a late-night gig at an ultra-secret orgy out on Long Island, and Bill worms his way into it. It's The Famous Orgy Sequence, all in capital letters, the one that would have gotten Kubrick an NC-17 rating if he hadn't digitally positioned figures in front of the action at strategic points to hide what was going on. It's a mark of the stupidity of the MPAA rating system that films as varied as "Eyes Wide Shut," "South Park," and "American Pie" all get the same R ratings.
But "Eyes Wide Shut" is less about sex than about jealous obsession. Bill's night out is fueled by the image he carries of Alice's fantasy of sex with a stranger, and that alone takes him into a nightmarish series of encounters, both before and after his visit to the orgy. Kubrick has shot the film to heighten the surreal quality of each sequence, using thematic colors of red and blue as signals for sex, violence, and danger -- then combining them into purple for more softly resolved moments. His legendary perfectionism -- the demands for hundreds of takes -- which in other hands would lead to stagy, stilted, or flat performances, here play out with unexpected spontaneity. This film still shows his great eye for the perfect camera placement, the perfect lighting, and the perfect choreographing of scenes.
And the performances are also fine. Cruise, no longer quite the youthful icon, finds what depth there is in an undermotivated character. Kidman, who's allowed to play with her sexuality here, shows great range, particularly in a stunning monologue that defines their marriage. And there are good jobs by Pollack and, especially, Alan Cumming as a hotel clerk.
What is missing is a valid premise for all the tsuris. It's simply not believable anymore that someone -- anyone -- would have to hide his or her orgy from the supposedly prying eyes of the law. It's not even against the law; these are all consenting adults. And yet Dr. Bill's unauthorized presence triggers deaths. It's as though Kubrick, who sealed himself hermetically from unauthorized contact with the world for the last thirty years of his life, has mistaken his own, middle-aged fantasies of sex with willing young women, for great art. It isn't. It's still a middle-aged fantasy of sex with willing young women, and it's too frail a reed to build into a work of art. There's an odd and unexpected similarity between what we see in "Eyes Wide Shut" and Lucas's "Star Wars--Episode 1." Both were created by men who've withdrawn from the real world and substituted their fantasies for artistic truth, and both films fail on the same count. There's genius in them both, but not much value.