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“He is morbidly afraid of giving away any of his secrets, the best of which may be that he has none.”
—Frederic Raphael on Stanley Kubrick
After a year of production (as many as 70 takes per shot) and another of editing, major cast replacements, extensive re-shooting of key sequences, director Stanley Kubrick’s unexpected death following completion of the final cut, MPAA rating board skirmishes, forests of newsprint, rivers of ink, and months of airtime trumpeting the project, Eyes Wide Shut has finally arrived. Despite the breathless praise of the majority of opening-week reviewers, it is a shockingly bad movie—turgid, clumsily written, unevenly acted, and stuffed with laughably dated ideas. As one of the most eagerly anticipated film events of the last few years, it must be seen by avid moviegoers if only to satisfy their curiosity. Some, at least, will share my disappointment and that of my companion at the press screening, who, as the house lights came up, pronounced it the worst movie she’d seen since Burn Hollywood Burn.
Kubrick and cowriter Frederic Raphael base their screenplay on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella, Dream Story. Schnitzler (1862-1931), a pioneering Viennese dramatist, novelist, and physician, and a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, explored the effects of sexual desire and the subconscious on the behavior of his characters, most notably in his 1900 play, Reigen (filmed by Max Ophuls in 1950 as La Ronde), in which a circular chain of casual erotic encounters yields only disillusionment and the spread of syphilis.
I have not been able to locate a copy of Dream Story; it’s out of print, although scheduled for republication—along with the Eyes Wide Shut screenplay—in September. A reliable source familiar with the book tells me that, despite transferring the setting from fin de siècle Vienna to contemporary New York, the film closely adheres to Schnitzler’s plot line and employs much of his dialogue.
Dr. Bill Harford and his wife, Alice (played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, as if you didn’t know), a privileged Manhattan couple, attend a lavish party hosted by Harford’s acquaintance, millionaire Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). During the evening, both are propositioned—Bill by a pair of capricious models, Alice by an oily Hungarian seducer. Returning to their posh Central Park West apartment, they smoke a joint and, before they make love, the buzzed Alice confesses to a sexual fantasy she had about a naval officer whom the pair briefly encountered while vacationing on Cape Cod. Inflamed with jealousy, Bill embarks on an odyssey through New York’s erotic underground, encountering the infatuated daughter of a deceased patient, a prostitute, pedophiles, a lascivious gay hotel clerk, and a secret society of orgiasts. In the course of witnessing, but not tasting, these forbidden fruits, he’s forced to question whether his hitherto secure marriage can survive the lustful knowledge he’s acquired.
Schnitzler’s exploration of the anarchic power of sexual desire must have been an eye-opener when his novella appeared in the ’20s. Freudianism had yet to permeate the Zeitgeist, and the revelation that respectable people harbor intensely erotic impulses and fantasies no doubt packed a punch. But today, with television endlessly broadcasting this truism in daily doses on the Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake trash talk shows, and adulterous sexual appetites brazenly satisfied in the Oval Office and broadcast on the nightly news, Schnitzler’s theme seems antediluvian.
One has to wonder what drew Kubrick to this passé property, a project he pondered filming for nearly 30 years. Perhaps he was attracted to the challenge of making a movie dealing with female sexuality, a subject he sidestepped in his previous 12 features. (Women in the director’s films have largely been objects of male desire—The Killing’s sluttish wife, the rape victims in A Clockwork Orange, Lolita. The notable exception is the innocent girl who sings at the end of Paths of Glory, a symbol of hope played by the future Mrs. Kubrick.) But three decades walled up in an English country estate appear to have isolated the filmmaker from the explosion of information about female sensuality promulgated by several generations of feminists. Eyes Wide Shut’s women, stripped naked and coldly ogled, appear to be the impacted projections of an aging man who realizes that he’s missed out on something but has made that discovery too late to do much about it.
In the mid-’60s, Eyes Wide Shut co-scripter Raphael wrote a screenplay focusing on a similar theme—how sexual impulsiveness can threaten marital fidelity. He sent the piece to director Stanley Donen, who shot it exactly as written. The result was the Audrey Hepburn-Albert Finney classic Two for the Road (1967), a time-tripping anatomy of a troubled modern marriage that, even today, feels astonishingly contemporary.
Surely, this is one of the reasons Kubrick engaged Raphael as a collaborator, resulting in a difficult relationship brilliantly chronicled in Raphael’s just-released book, Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick. Although he maintains a qualified admiration for the filmmaker’s talent and some aspects of his personality, Raphael paints a devastating portrait of the man, depicting him as an insular, humorless, paranoid, passive-aggressive control freak. Apart from issuing several peculiar directives—the screenplay could contain no jokes and its protagonists must not be Jews, as they are in Schnitzler’s original—Kubrick offered Raphael no guidelines to follow. When ultimately presented with Kubrick’s revision of his script, to which Raphael devoted the better part of a year, the screenwriter’s appalled reaction presciently characterizes the completed film. “The text is jejune and without literary grace. It is almost gauche in its unpretentiousness. Occasionally it is embarrassing.” Kubrick’s rewrite confirmed the screenwriter’s apprehension when he initially accepted the assignment. “What I dread and cannot help probing is the possibility that the Kubrick myth will perish under close inspection.”
In rare cases, a filmmaking “genius”—an honorific so frequently lavished on the director that one has come to regard “Kubrick” as his middle name—can redeem banal content, but Eyes Wide Shut is as clumsily executed as it was conceived. Its pacing is ponderous, often stupefying, as though the cast had been sedated and then forced to perform under water. Kubrick stretches exchanges of simple, often stilted, expository dialogue to the breaking point; he ends with two crushingly explicit, wholly unnecessary “explanatory” scenes that close the movie with a dull thump, thereby betraying his analysis, quoted by Raphael, as to why 2010, the sequel to his 2001: A Space Odyssey, failed. “They told you what everything meant. Killed it. You tell people what things mean, they don’t mean anything anymore.” Alice’s pedagogical fadeout articulation of the movie’s theme—”No dream is ever just a dream”—could come as news only to someone locked in an isolation chamber for most of our century.
Formally, the amber-lit opening party sequence is elegantly visualized, but the remainder of the film, mainly shot on English studio sets intended to simulate Manhattan locations, is unconvincing, static, and garishly colored, suspended in a void between realism and stylization. (One wonders what New York Kubrick attempts to reproduce. The city he abandoned in the ’60s, when Village jazz clubs still had doormen?) The extended, weirdly asexual orgy scene—its participants, clad in black cloaks and masks, engaging in a diabolical rite— looks like an outtake from one of Roger Corman’s low-budget ’60s Poe adaptations. The almost surreal imprecision of Les Tomkins and Roy Walker’s production designs might lead viewers to conclude that the entire film, like Schnitzler’s novella, is intended as a dream. But the intercutting of fantasy sequences—the monochromatic shots of Bill imagining Alice making love to the naval officer—undermines this interpretation. Sometimes a poorly designed movie is just a poorly designed movie.
Rarely applauded for his direction of actors (recall the bovine Ryan O’Neal and the affectless Marisa Berenson sleepwalking through the three-hour Barry Lyndon), Kubrick appears to have left his performers to their own devices. Some survive this benign neglect. Kidman’s pouty, sex-kitten vulnerability enlivens her scenes. Unfortunately, she’s on-screen for barely a third of the movie’s 159 minutes. Sydney Pollack effectively recycles the rich New York swinger role he played in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, and Julienne Davis does well as a self-sacrificing, drug-addicted model. But most of the other supporting roles are cartoonishly played. Sky Dumont, as the Hungarian Lothario, behaves as if he’s in a summer-stock revival of The Merry Widow, and Alan Cumming’s gay clerk, the film’s sole comic character, deserves a place in future doctoral theses on cinematic homophobia.
Cruise’s performance proves to be Eyes Wide Shut’s biggest liability. The callow, beetle-browed actor is well beyond his depth as a celebrated Manhattan physician. (The character’s repeated flashing of his professional credentials reinforces the unwanted impression that Bill is a medical student attempting to impersonate one of his teachers.) Cast in a largely reactive role, Cruise’s contribution consists of two expressions: a blissful Alfred E. Neumanish grin in the party sequence, and a befuddled “Huh?” when observing scenes depicting sexual transgression. (His efforts are hardly abetted by Jocelyn Pook’s grating musical score, which accompanies tense passages with the amplified repetition of a single treble keyboard note, the sound of a piano tuner hard at work.) The long Steadicam tracking shots of the diminutive actor struggling to keep pace with his Junoesque wife as they traverse Manhattan’s canyons perversely reminded me of another famous screen couple—Midnight Cowboy’s Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck.
I have great respect for most of Kubrick’s early work (The Killing, Paths of Glory, Lolita) and admiration for his risk taking in subsequent films that I’m not as enthusiastic about (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, even the interminable Barry Lyndon). But Kubrick hardly belongs in the company of the genius filmmakers who have emerged in the medium’s centurylong history, among them Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Luis Buñuel, and Robert Bresson. (In what might be tacit acknowledgement of this, he pays homage to two authentic directorial geniuses in Eyes Wide Shut: Kidman and Dumont’s dance, shot in 360-degree camera movements, echoes the celebrated waltz sequence in Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de…#, and Kidman’s erotic monologue replicates Bibi Andersson’s startling sexual reminiscence in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona.) Cocooned for three decades, swollen by the overinflated reputation he worked so hard to engender, and sustained by Warner Bros.’ carte-blanche financial support, Kubrick created, as his last testament, a cinematic folly that rivals the crackpot monuments that Ludwig, the Mad King of Bavaria, built to himself. CP