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REVIEW: “Eyes Wide Shut,” Kubrick’s Mysterious, Meandering Masterpiece

REVIEW: "Eyes Wide Shut," Kubrick's Mysterious, Meandering Masterpiece

REVIEW: "Eyes Wide Shut," Kubrick's Mysterious, Meandering Masterpiece

by Danny Lorber

Eyes Wide Shut

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in “Eyes Wide Shut” (photo: Warner Bros.)

After years of secretiveness and hype, Stanley Kubrick‘s “Eyes Wide
” is finally upon us, and what we have is a troublesome, often
brilliant work that is destined to build its reputation after years and
multiple viewings. The 13th film from one of the great film artists of
all time is an aesthetic triumph — a mood piece through and through.
If, after a single viewing, the film fails to communicate its particular
ideas about sex, monogamy, jealousy and obsession, than it leaves its
audience desperate to see it again; its one of the most curious and
ambiguous film’s ever to be made with Hollywood money.

Real-life spouses Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman play Dr. William and Alice Harford –
a New York City couple, married for nine years with a little daughter and an upper
class lifestyle. On surface levels, the story tells of the couple
dealing with personal sexual wants that sway from the desire they are
supposed to reserve for each other. The film takes place over a couple
of nights, as Cruise responds to a remarkably candid admittance by his
wife and journeys through the streets of a sexually saturated Greenwich
Village where temptation lurks and is offered to him around every
disturbing corner.

Based on the similarly atmospheric and absorbing novella, “Dream Story,”
by Arthur Schnitzler, an Austrian writer who was a friend and colleague
of Freud, “Eyes Wide Shut” has been an obsession for Kubrick for over 30
years. He’s owned the material since the late ’60s, and finally got
around to creating a script with co-screenwriter Frederick Rapheal a few
years ago. The movie is remarkably faithful to Schnitzler’s story
while modernizing it and transforming it from Vienna to New York. The
New York on display, however, cannot be accepted as the one that we
really know, nor can anything in the film be taken as a representation
of normal life. The film is surreal, but subtlety so. It’s blanketed in
neon and Christmas lights. (In a brilliant aesthetic concept, the film
takes place mostly at night during the Holiday season, providing for a
lighting scheme that’s perfectly unnatural while making narrative
sense). If taken as an atmospheric replica of life, “Eyes Wide Shut”
simply won’t communicate its art and the film will fail. However,
looking at it as a subjective, reality-stretching odyssey, the film is
an emotional and atmospheric masterwork.

Bill and Alice’s erotic exploration begins when they both attend an
extravagant Christmas party (a scene reminiscent of the ball scene in
Kubrick’s “The Shining”) at which both are sexually aroused by other
people. Bill is seduced by a pair of models who want to take him “to the
end of the rainbow” (or, at least, to a private room hidden in the
mansion), while Alice flirts intensely with a suave Hungarian on the
dance floor. The party is full of dreamy ambiance, it’s bathed in bright
light and reeks of repressed sex hidden behind a lavish facade. When
Bill and Alice get back home, they have their famous mirror copulation,
smoke a little pot, and then settle down in the bedroom, where Alice asks
Bill if he “fucked” the two women he was flirting with at the party. He
answers her incredulously, and she mocks him and calls him on his

Then she surprises him with a confession about a desperate attraction
she once had for a naval officer she basically only shared a “look” with
while vacationing one summer with Bill. “If he called on me, I wouldn’t
have refused him,” she says, before explaining that she would have given
up her marriage, her child and her future for sex with this man, while at
the same time, she says to Bill, “my love for you was stronger than
ever.” The scene is a tour-de-force for Kidman and for Kubrick, and even
for Cruise, who listens with quiet devastation. It’s one of the most
remarkably frank and stirring movie scenes ever filmed — so realistic,
so moving. Moments after Kidman finishes her confession, Cruise is
called to the house of a patient who just died, and the creepy, unpredictable
narrative adventure begins.

“Eyes Wide Shut” walks a very thin string, at any moment it threatens to
dissolve into absurdity. The already famous centerpiece orgy sequence
(which features the digitized figures that have been created to hide
the most graphic sex in the movie — a frustrating bit of censorship no
doubt, but certainly not as horrible as some have said) is certainly the
most debatable aspect of the film, and it’s the moment where the film
will fall off that string for some viewers. Certainly over-the-top,
it is also wonderfully affecting, conjuring up a sense of evil and great

Kubrick understood the language of cinema better than any contemporary
filmmaker, and he knows exactly how his audience will interpret what
they’re watching. So he makes the whole experience difficult to grasp. He’s ambivalent about letting us know what’s real and what’s
not — and not just regarding the obvious question of whether the
characters are dreaming. Has everything in the narrative been staged as
some elaborate trick being played on Cruise’s Dr. Bill? If it is a
dream, than who is having the dream?

The emotional excess and inconsistency of the film will no doubt turn a
lot of people off to it, even serious, thoughtful viewers. “Eyes
Wide Shut” is long, occasionally meandering, and sometimes too ambiguous —
frustratingly so. It’s often awkward too, most conspicuously in the
performances and in some of the roles themselves. While Kidman is
brilliant, her character is surprisingly cold, not to mention all over
the place, oversexed, and maybe even cruel. We never warm to her, nor to
anyone else for that matter— which is normal for a Kubrick film — but
indisputably a barrier for an audience looking to attach themselves to
the characters.

As for Cruise, my response is only this: I’m surprised that the actor
gave up two years of his life and millions of dollars for such a blank
role. Cruise’s talents as an actor are obviously debatable, but he
certainly has a movie star’s charisma and can be good sometimes, if
he’s allowed a role that is based on charisma and doesn’t require
much nuance. In “Eyes Wide Shut,” Cruise aptly serves as the audience’s
surrogate — everything happens to him, and we watch and experience the
weirdness exactly as he does. But when he’s called upon to match wits
and dialogue, he’s hard to believe, and it’s quite a stretch for the
baby faced actor to be playing a highly respected Upper West Side doctor
whose clients are the rich and richer. In a climactic scene with Sydney
Pollack (playing a sleazy billionaire who may hold the answers to the
story’s madness) Cruise simply seems like a kid in over his head (and,
frankly, Pollack is pretty lousy too).

“Eyes Wide Shut” builds a sense of dread and fascination in nearly every
frame, the soundtrack is so wonderful and the film is a mosaic of
cinematic skills and artistry, but it’s not random or wayward — it’s a
mosaic built into a fascinating story. But where that story leads is
somewhere that it probably shouldn’t have gone, and having only seen
this film once (I’ll see it again today, and then probably after that
and after that. . .), my initial response to its denouement is one of
passionate frustration. Kubrick’s ending is ironic, I guess — or at
least I hope, because if it’s not, the movie’s point is just
insubstantial and the whole thing is a stylized joke. The end credit
music seems all wrong and the last line, said by Kidman with a wink and
a grin, is — ironic or not — a disheartening way for Kubrick to end
his career. “Eyes Wide Shut” travels such an ambiguous tract that it
could have ended a couple of different times during its last 10 minutes,
and each time would have made the film a completely different experience
that would have been all the more haunting than where it finally concludes.

Yet, as with all of Kubrick’s films, opinions about the work are never
set in stone, his movies remain fascinating and we receive them in
different ways each time we see them. “Eyes Wide Shut” is way too
complex for anyone to form an absolute opinion after one introduction to
it. Therefore, it stands alongside all of the filmmaker’s work in terms
of pure fascination. Kubrick’s point of view of human behavior is
apparent and unchanged here too. Despite what you may have heard, one
leaves the film with the distinct impression that Kubrick still looks
down at his characters and at humanity with poignant disgust.

However one reacts to “Eyes Wide Shut,” what can’t be denied is the
brilliance and care that went into its conception. The film has been
made with an artistry and confidence that is breathtaking. Stanley
Kubrick’s last movie is far from perfect, but as the final installment
in his oeuvre, he shows that he never lost his skill and that his
talents never cease to amaze.

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