Eyes Wide Shut
Top Ten List: #1 of 1999
Director: Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Julienne Davis, Vinessa Shaw, Todd Field, Rade Sherbedgia, Sky Dumont, Leelee Sobieski. Screenplay: Frederic Raphael and Stanley Kubrick (based on the novel Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler).

Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut is something old and something new, wholly consistent with the director's body of work, yet embarking on its own radical experiments in perspective and subject matter. Like all of Kubrick's films, Eyes Wide Shut fixes on a seismic moment in the life of its over-confident protagonist, a two or three day period in which the deceptively stable ground beneath him begins to heave and crumble. This time, however, Kubrick moves away from the combat milieu of Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and Full Metal Jacket, or the terrible violence of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, instead probing his formidable camera through the deep, murky waters of sexual discontent and marital strain. Of the Kubrick pictures I have seen—all of the above group plus A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Barry Lyndon—only Dr. Strangelove seems to escape eventual thematic or formal compromise. Happily, though, Eyes Wide Shut turns out to be just as interesting and nearly as accomplished as that matchless nuclear-age satire. Eyes is not the steamy film for which the ads prepare you, but rather—and this is far preferable—it is a coherent summary of Kubrick's longtime themes and a worthy capstone to his long, distinguished career.

Tom Cruise stars as Dr. Bill Harford, a wealthy physician who has clearly grown comfortable in his lavish Central Park West apartment, as well as in his marriage to Alice (Nicole Kidman), once the manager of an art gallery and now a stay-at-home mom to their young daughter. The first shot of the picture, preceding even the title credit, is of Alice undressing from the back, her nude body perceived through a doorway. The moment is crucial, not so much for its content as for the overt tip-off that Alice is being watched from the next room, and therefore, we infer, the point of view is her husband's. Eyes Wide Shut barely makes sense if we discard this suggestion and other, equally strong ones that the film is told from Cruise's point of view. The picture's strength, however, lies not only in the consistency of its perspective but in its refusal to state its point of view too obviously. We are constantly made to wonder what exactly we are watching: a nightmare, a reality, or a life whose reins have somehow been assumed by some hidden, threatening overseer?

The early sequences of the film, before it veers more fully into the macabre and the perverse, are merely (though intentionally) disorienting. Bill and Alice attend a gala party thrown by one of Bill's patients, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). Before they seem to realize it, the Harfords are taunting each other by attracting other admirers. Bill walks off with a cooing nymphet on each arm, flashing that inimitable "I starred in Top Gun" smile. Alice drinks champagne as though it were water, and she returns the flirtations of an older Hungarian lothario (Sky Dumont) for some time—minutes? hours?—before she finally rejoins her husband. She does not know that while Bill has been out of her sight, he has been brought into one of Ziegler's private rooms. The host, half-dressed, needs Bill to revive a naked, voluptuous young woman who has overdosed and passed out during their furtive sexual encounter. Ziegler's companion, like the Harfords' marriage, survives the evening but both are shaken, perhaps more so than anyone imagines.

Kubrick's script, adapted with Frederic Raphael from an Arthur Schnitzler novel, soon finds Bill and Alice in their bedroom on the following evening, where they hash out their petty jealousies regarding each other's flirtations of the previous night. In a bold gesture not merely of one-upsmanship, but of proving to her cocksure husband that women's sexualities are as strong and tempting as men's, Alice reveals to Bill that she once exchanged a passing erotic glance with a stranger that nearly drove her out of her "safe" life: as a wife, as a mother, as the loyal, moral woman she had always thought she was. "I would have given it all up, just for one night," she confesses, though she never actually strayed, nor even met the object of her desires.

At the precise moment that Bill hears this confession—awkward for any lover, but truly shattering to his own blinkered understanding of his world—he gets a call from the daughter of another longtime patient. The sick man has just died. When Bill visits the house, the grieving daughter embarrasses herself by blurting out her infatuation with Bill; she gushes forth even as her father's body lies on the bed in the very same room. Later, as Bill walks back toward his own home, he impulsively lets himself be picked up by a hooker (Vinessa Shaw). Each event—Alice's story, Marion's revelation, his encounter with the prostitute—comprises a larger and larger break from his normal routine. Each moment is more of a surprise to him than the last.

The story continues in this pattern, until literally the whole world has begun to fray: Bill tears a $100 bill in half for a taxi driver; he arrives at stores after they have closed, or at cafés before they have opened; he discovers a lurid business concealed behind an innocent-seeming costume shop. The climax of his lifestyle's crumbling occurs when he makes his way to a clandestine, incredibly stylized orgy in which disguised, seemingly male revellers pair off with nubile women dressed only in masks and shoes. One of these women recognizes Bill despite his own cloak and mask and, without revealing her own identity, she warns him urgently to leave.

From this point, the story begs to be kept secret, but already viewers are misjudging and underestimating Eyes Wide Shut by focusing attention on the wrong, though more heavily advertised, aspects of the film. Such mistakes only obscure the film's meaning. If the orgy sequence seems more scary than sexy, as many detractors allege, it is because the sequence is supposed to be scary. How did a respected, married professional like Bill Harford end up at such a secretive, cultish event, a place he would never have dreamed of visiting only days beforehand? What will happen to him here? What does it mean about his marriage, about him, that he is so bent on remaining even under threat of harm?

Kubrick also received plenty of grief during his life from critics indignant at the coldness, the artificiality, or the seeming incompetence of the performers in his films. At least in Eyes Wide Shut, however, it is not viewer identification or even believability that the stars are made to achieve. Rather, their duty is to trade on our own tendency to typecast them against their real-life personas. True, Tom Cruise, so good in other, lighter movies, seems a little over-challenged to match this story's dark heart or the character's profound self-doubt. Far more important to Kubrick's vision, however, is that we equate Bill Harford, the character, with what we know of Tom Cruise, the actor: someone who has it all, someone who is financially and professionally secure, someone known as a doer of good deeds. With these associations intact, Harford's fall seems all the more surprising, all the more terribly unexpected, both to us and to him. Like Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, Cruise is not asked to play himself exactly, but as a person of great and specific celebrity, he is brought in to invest the character with associative qualities few other actors could provide.

Kidman also bears in her iconic status certain similarities to the woman she plays. Alice is known to us primarily as Bill's beautiful wife, and even though she seems like the more interesting and articulate of the two, we have a hard time knowing her without the refracting prism of her better-known husband. Obviously, Nicole can relate, but she can also put over a doozy of a performance, and Eyes Wide Shut contains possibly her best work. Alice is cipherish not only because of her limited screen time and the structuring of the story from Bill's perspective, but also because she is often high, drunk, nearly asleep, or just awoken at the times we see her. The chronic near-unconsciousness of Kidman's character—if we remind ourselves that the film's perspective is essentially Bill's—powerfully highlights how vague and uncanny she seems to her husband, who seems notably unable to understand anything she says, does, or thinks, a problem he seems to have with most of the women he meets. In particular, every woman in Bill's story is heavily sexualized, whether as prostitute, orgy participant, tempted wife, or enamored admirer, which gives a certain weight to Alice's charges that her husband does not perceive woman as full, well-rounded people. Beyond reducing them to their sexualities, Bill reduces those sexualities themselves to banal Madonna/whore oppositions.

Despite all of these daunting barriers, both narcotic and narrative, between Alice and the audience, Kidman delivers even her prosier monologues with piercing emotion and revelatory strength. Her last important role, in Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady, was another emotional showstopper in a film by a major talent that people nonetheless derided and ignored. I would pity Kidman's luck if she weren't such a sharp talent, refusing sentiment even when her characters are weepy, lost, or not quite sure of themselves.

The other characters are all well-played by lesser-known cast members, including Leelee Sobieski of A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, Rade Sherbedgia of Before the Rain, and Todd Field of Walking and Talking. As Ziegler, Pollack turns in another good performance as a temperamental, entitled-feeling man—and speaking of symmetries between actors and their roles, don't forget that Pollack himself is a filmmaker as you try to piece together who is up to what in this sidewinding tale.

Kubrick, of course, is in exhilarating command of his story and his medium, cognizant of all the effects he can wring out of sound, focus, framing, and color. He uses several zooms and dissolves into Cruise's face to reinforce the notion that we are passing through Bill's head, that the film is somehow bleeding out of his own consciousness. Near the end of the film, following a scene in which Cruise tells his wife a story, the colors and camera angles of the picture shift in dramatic ways that definitively call into question the seeming objectivity or reality of what we've been shown. Other effects in the picture are as subtle as the visual congruence between the bright red door of the prostitute's apartment building and the rich scarlet field of Ziegler's pool table. The concordance suggests that, to a magnate like Ziegler, sex and billiards are virtual equivalents as pleasures to be bought, strategies of angles and manipulations to be cooked up by his cunning mind.

On the surface, the events of Eyes Wide Shut read like a ludicrously overheated, hopelessly distant botch: a woman tells her husband that she almost committed adultery, so he runs to a secret orgy as a way to get back at her. To dismiss the film along such overly literal terms is not only to discard the potent and complicated storytelling mechanisms in the picture, but to forget how silly other Kubrick pictures would sound if interpreted along such superficial lines. Just because Strangelove and, to an extent, Lolita foreground the absurdity of their plots, one must not assume that Kubrick's subjects in more poker-faced films—the preposterous breach of military protocol in Paths of Glory, the moral insanity of Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket, the extreme case of cabin fever in The Shining—are to be interpreted as simple, unmediated truth. Eyes Wide Shut rewards the concerted attention of eyes, ears, and mind, a challenging artwork so worth the effort of comprehension that 1999's other films seem like fingerpaintings. For what it reveals, for what it conceals, and for what it leaves open to viewer debate, the movie is not to be missed. A


Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Original Score: Jocelyn Pook

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