Eyes Wide Shut
A Film by Stanley Kubrick
I hope it will not diminish the memory of Stanley Kubrick's noteworthy career in film that it was capped by this poorly-written, unevenly-realized and extravagantly overly-publicized effort. For all the sound and fury, Kubrick's swan song is one of his least accomplished and successful films. If this were a tribute to his career I could find a lot of good things to say about films like Dr Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Paths Of Glory and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sadly, there isn't much good to say about Eyes Wide Shut.
The film is based on a 1926 Viennese work of fiction by Arthur Schnitzler titled Traumnovelle or "Dream-novel". The story is an old-fashion melodrama, spiced-up by its sexual themes, and in the Kubrick adaptation by liberal dollops of nudity and some coyly-simulated sex.
Successful doctor Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) come into conflict over sexual mores when, in the aftermath of a party where both have been very flirtatious, Alice confesses that she has been strongly attracted to a complete stranger. Bill reacts by becoming obsessed with fantasy images of his wife and the stranger. His obsession leads him into an exploration of the sexual underworld where he become involved in sinister and threatening activities. After a narrow escape, the Harfords appear well on their way toward reconciliation.
The source material presents an interesting theme: the sexual double standards between the public world and the private world, and between men and women - the fascinating danger of the sexual impulse. Unfortunately, Kubrick and co-screenwriter Frederick Raphael chose not to update most of the original plot. Schnitzler's foray into the melodramatic sub-plot of a secret sex club becomes a distraction from the film's psychological and philosophical focus. The moral tone of the film shows no consciousness of the wide-ranging and earnest discussions about sexuality that have been an ever-present part of the last five decades.
The story is further weakened by being set in the domain of the super-rich and the incredibly-super-rich. It provides sumptuous backgrounds, but it betrays any claim the film might make to emotional authenticity. Without extraordinarily skillful development, such characters can't be anything but two dimensional icons to most people, who have no reference to what the inner lives of the fabulously wealthy are like. Instead of people, they become allegorical figures or worse - plot points.
Kubrick has tried to mix the "erotic thriller" - a mostly shallow and exploitative genre at best - with psychological drama (something Hitchcock, with his savagely-repressed but relentlessly implicit sexuality, was able to elevate to an art form). The result here is an un-focused story that wanders all over the place and never comes to any point.
The effective sense of foreboding and mystery Kubrick builds around the sex club, for instance, is ultimately deflated by being explained away - in a most unconvincing fashion - and that's the last we hear of it. Sub-plots about a young hooker who turns out to be HIV positive, a Jazz pianist who is a fellow med-school student of Harford's, and a girl whose father has just died turn out to be similar dead-ends, and are left hanging in an equally cavalier fashion.
Similarly, the tension between the Dr. and Mrs.Harford inexplicably dissolves, rather than being resolved. What should have been the psychological pivot of the story (when Harford breaks down and tells his wife all that has happened to him) takes place off camera. We see the breakdown and then its aftermath - a very artificial reconciliation - but are given no clue as to their inner journey from A to B.
If, as Kubrick and others have stated in interviews, this is a film about sexual fantasy, what happens to Alice's fantasies? We see her flirting with (but ultimately resisting) a sleazy, continental seducer in the opening party scene. She describes to her husband her overwhelming attraction to an anonymous young naval officer (in one of the best moments of the film)- and then: silence. Kubrick makes the novice mistake of showing us a gun in the first act that he never uses. It is most unsatisfying. There are many such flaws in the screenplay. To go on about them seems uncharitable.
But some mention must also be made of the film's relentless sexism. There is lots of full-frontal nudity in this film, but all of it is female. There a few fleeting shots of Cruise, naked from the waist up, but the camera lingers endlessly on the (seemingly) silicone-enhanced, borderline-anorexic Barbie-bodies of the women at the sex club. The sexual imagery in the film is almost purely that favored by adolescent boys.
If this is in fact a film about sexual fantasy, it is about a passive, immature, one-sided kind of fantasy that approaches and ogles but never engages. It never gets beyond the vision of the isolated, "skin-magazine" reading teen-ager.
There is no real exploration of the place of fantasy - by all accounts one of mankind's most pervasive and universal habits - in human life, for good or ill. There is only a sort of vague sense that if you follow the impulses fantasy elicits you may be pulled down into a dangerous place - a confusingly one-dimensional conclusion more in keeping with the repressive moral tone of Vienna between the wars than with that of the global world of the 1990s.
Another problem with the film is the casting. Cruise and Kidman are called upon to carry us over the weaknesses of the screenplay, and - as in their earlier collaboration Far And Away - they just aren't up to it. Kidman has some strong moments in individual scenes, but in comparing her performance in the opening scene, the scene where she relates her attraction to the stranger and the final scene of the film, it is as if she were playing three unrelated characters.
Premiere Magazine critic Libby Gelman-Waxner (aka screenwriter Scott Rudin) once suggested that a retrospective of Tom Cruise's movies could most usefully be divided into "those in which Tom wears sunglasses and those in which he doesn't." This is one in which he doesn't (although he does spend a lot of the film with his face in shadow or covered by one or both of his hands).
For much of the movie he is merely a passive observer of events and when he is called upon to indicate that he is deeply moved he does so by staring stoicly into the middle distance till his eyes glaze over. But Cruise is capable of genuine acting. Oliver Stone got a fine performance out of him in Born On The Fourth Of July, and his comic timing and exuberance in Risky Business was a delight. In this film, he doesn't seem to know how to react.
Whether this is the fault of the poorly-crafted screenplay, of Kubrick's direction, or of Cruise's limited dramatic ability is impossible to judge. Most likely it is a combination of all three. The unfortunate result for the audience is the same whatever the source: a principal character who never engages our interest and sympathy.
But Kubrick's reputation is by no means seriously damaged by this one film, for even in failure he is more accomplished and effective than most of his fellow directors. In his mastery of camera movement and shot composition, as well as his many subtle touches (the recurring satirical use of the image of Christmas trees to cite only one instance), Kubrick has put together a polished, highly-professional production.
Although the movie doesn't work as a continuous story, there are many individual scenes that are visually stunning, and one or two that are emotionally compelling. The building tension of Harford's nightmare-like pursuit through the city (although betrayed by a painfully heavy-handed sound-track) is a worthy successor to Hitchcock or Lang.
It is certainly an unfortunate circumstance that Kubrick died without having seen the finished film screened. If he had had more time to absorb the criticism of trusted friends and to get some distance from the project, he might have made changes that would have enhanced the narrative power and integrity. But maybe not. We'll never know.
What we do know is that the awkward artificiality of Eyes Wide Shut is a far cry from the incisive wit of Dr. Strangelove, the despairing social commentary of A Clockwork Orange, or the subtle and devastating exploration of sexuality and self-deception of Lolita. In these and half a dozen other films Kubrick showed himself to be a talented and original filmmaker. In his most successful efforts he dared and succeeded. In his less successful efforts, like this one, he only dared - yet that in itself is a kind of success.
That's my take on it. What's yours?