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EYES WIDE SHUT(director: Stanley Kubrick; screenwriters: based on an Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella “Rhapsody: Dream Story” (Traumnovelle)/Frederic Raphael/Stanley Kubrick; cinematographer: Larry Smith; editor: Nigel Galt; cast: Tom Cruise (Bill Harford), Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford), Sydney Pollack (Victor Ziegler), Todd Field (Nick Nightingale, Jazz Musician), Thomas Gibson (Fiancé, Carl), Marie Richardson (Marion), Rade Serbedzija (Milich), Vinessa Shaw (Domino), Leelee Sobieski (Milich’s Daughter), Alan Cummings (desk clerk), Fay Masterson (Sally), Sky Dumont (Sandor Szavost), Julienne Davis (Mandy); Runtime: 159; producer: Stanley Kubrick; Warner Bros.; 1999-UK)
“A thinking man’s work of art.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is Kubrick’s 13th and final film after a 46-year career. He died in March of this year, ironically, just one week after the film was shot while in seemingly good health and optimistic about the film, all set to begin a massive publicity campaign for the opening. Kubrick has accomplished a work of exquisite visual craftsmanship, another fitting feather in the cap for one of the most original innovators in cinema today. Kubrick’s sharp photographic images intermingled with some grainy shots and his never static camera angles (reminiscent of ones used in his other films) and his use of different shades of light to transpose his visions from a dream world to one of reality give the film a magical look, capturing and sweeping us into its grand design. It is a film that unfolds like a dream; and, to be fully experienced, it should be viewed with eyes wide shut.

The film’s opening immediately engages us in its sexuality: the tall, curvaceous lady peeling off her black dress with her back to us is Nicole Kidman. The next shot fades to darkness, it is as if the curtain was pulled down on a sex show and we are told that now that we have seen her lovely ass the rest is up to our imagination. The show is over; we can make of it what we want. And to do that, we have to take this 19th century novel about a wealthy class of Jews living in Vienna and observe how Kubrick has them now as modern day WASPS living a sexually debauched lifestyle in New York City.

There is a stimulating dream quality that pervades the entire film and draws us into the characterization of Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his stunning wife Alice (Nicole Kidman), who once worked in an art gallery before it closed. The intricate telling of their relationship involves the dreams they have, a ceremonial orgy he attends, nudity — including his viewing and seemingly kissing a corpse for a long few moments, a jealous marital relationship to tweak our morbid curiosity, and an obtuse ending that should satisfy those who can’t accept tidy endings in their films.

Kubrick has made an art film (in the good sense of that term) that delicately weaves a story of a fashionable New York City doctor and his restless wife of 9-years and their sweet seven year old daughter they both adore. They have hit a speed bump in their marriage, and it is because of sexual reasons. Make no mistake about it, sex is their problem. Kubrick, bless his convictions, will stick to this obsessive theme, not giving an inch of leeway for any other reason, from the alpha to the omega of the film. And to his credit, it is that intensity that gives the story fuel to propel itself and work its way into the understanding we have of the chemistry and dynamics in the relationship the two have. A picture perfect relationship that is shown to be already not perfect after the first five minutes of the film.

The couple are off to a swanky party given by Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), who resides in a town house fit for a king. He is some kind of a wealthy magnate, one of the doctor’s patients on Fifth Avenue. But before the couple leave they say all the right goodbyes to their daughter and her trustworthy babysitter in their opulently decorated condo apartment (the art work on the wall is from Stanley’s wife Christiane and daughter Katharina Hobbs).

We then follow the couple around town for a few nights, during the Christmas season, as they explore their sense of who they are through their dreams and through the acting out of their fantasies. If this couple was not rock solid sure of themselves–Cruise through his ability to think things through and remain placid in the face of danger and Kidman through her ability to articulate who she is as a woman, even when tipsy or high — they could not survive because a fragile ego would not get them over the hump they face.

Cruise is nearly perfect for the part (though he seemed to be in too many scenes and at times was unable to carry the film by himself) as he displays a wide range of emotions, such as being a turd and then coming back to be human again. It is the kind of acting he hasn’t been required to do so far in his career. But with the wonderful relationship he developed with Stanley he is able to understand who he is and be able to be convincing as a young doctor for the rich and as a dye-in-the-wool materialist, committed to being a doctor and intelligent enough to see changes in his life as necessities. It is interesting to note that Stanley’s father was a doctor and the doctor’s office used in the film is a model of his dad’s place. Arthur Schnitzler, the book’s author, was also a medical doctor and the son of a doctor.

Working with his real-life wife of seven years was also a marvelous idea that worked: Kidman is perfecto in her role as the liberated but not quite liberated woman, who pours poison into the mind of her husband and loves him while being afraid of herself and her desires of the real world. A world where she is prey for all the male predators out there ready to take her to bed because she is so attractive. She is going through a restless stage of her life, filled with anxiety and bad dreams.

The couple play off each other as they twist their emotions around and in the end they both get more answers than they wanted. To be right for the couple’s parts one must appear to be vulnerable and to be seen as a sympathetic figure who is locked in a very erotic struggle; while, at the same time, they must be seen as selfish lovers, craving for their own desires and fantasies to be fulfilled above all else.

The entire cast is superb. The main supporting character in the story is Ziegler as played by Sydney Pollack, a replacement for the fired Harvey Keitel. He is sleazy enough in his role as the unseemly millionaire playboy, who is quite equipped to play dangerous games with the Who’s Who in the world of the rich and famous.

Ziegler’s Christmas party starts out with the couple lost to themselves not knowing any of the other guests present, but the champagne soon gets to Alice and a Hungarian smoothy (Sky Dumont) comes onto her — hitting on all her pent up sexual fantasies and by using sweet words arouses her sexual curiosity. Bill, in the meantime, is being tempted by two sexually aggressive models who are leading him around by the arm with nothing on their mind but for them to have a threesome. But before anything can materialize, the doctor is called into Victor’s bathroom and asked to revive a naked hooker slumped in a chair, who overdosed after Victor just had sex with her.

Also at the party is a jazz piano player, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), who went to medical school with Bill but dropped out. When they meet the next night at the Greenwich Village club he has a gig in he intrigues the doctor by telling him he plays blindfolded for a secret gathering of those who dress up in costumes of masks and cloaks, and where a mysterious orgy takes place.

Bill has just left a patient who has died. His neurotic daughter, who is soon to be married, catches him off guard by passionately kissing and telling him that she loves him. All this occurring while her father’s corpse lies in the same room they are in and with her fiancé on his way up to the apartment. The doctor also gets seduced by a street prostitute whom he was willing to pay $150 for, who takes him to her very modest apartment. He leaves her when his wife calls him on his cell phone; but, she has piqued his sexual appetite and he is still hungry for pleasure. On his downtown stroll he runs into some gay bashing youths, who take him for a gay and push him to the ground while yelling insults.

All this comes after the pivotal moment of the film, the heartfelt conversation between Bill and Alice, when the couple smoke a little pot and loosen up and bring out in the open the jealousy that is affecting them because of the party. Each is trying to pump the other about what is on their mind and getting more than what they bargained for in return. This scene is one of sheer brilliance, one of the best Kubrick has ever done, it is a scene that is so humanly emotional, something that his naysayers said he could never do; the acting catches all the nuances of a real relationship, something that an inexperienced acting duo could not have done so effortlessly and made it seem so impactful. Angry with him over his taking her faithfulness for granted, she has told him that she once desired another man who only looked at her and would have gone to bed with him if he had only asked. Bill has subliminal dreams about this picturing her having sex with this Navy officer as he rode around town in a cab, on streets created in the Pinewood Studio (these street scenes cannily reflecting the eerie atmosphere of Manhattan’s changing scenes of the tawdry Lower East Side, the lively Village, and the exclusive Upper West Side). What made the streets particularly foreboding was the skillful manipulation of lights to reflect the dream world of his odyssey, with the penetrating brightness of the neon emanating from the clubs and storefronts making them look like sites from hell.

The persistent doctor with money to spare, finds his way to a Village costume store to get a costume at a late hour of the night. Sex is everywhere and in all different styles in this film, but it is mostly in the couple’s head. Here, the 14-year-old costume store owner’s daughter (Leelee Sobieski) is caught in the store by her father having sex with two oddly dressed men and when reprimanded, only comes onto the good doctor who always seems to be flattered by such attention. The venal costume store owner (Rade Serbedzija) will then act as a pimp for his daughter.

Gaining admittance to the Long Island mansion of the orgy by using the password given to him by his jazz friend, Bill enters a macabre world of sinister pleasure that is played less erotically than it is as a formal costumed ritual– replete with medieval music and choreographed ritualistic movements. Sexual acts are taking place in all the rooms as Bill is warned by one of the masked naked woman that he is in great danger, that he will be unmasked and harmed if he doesn’t leave at once. When he is questioned about how he got in by the inquistors of this orgy and can’t explain himself, he is threatened with being stripped and possibly slain – but is saved by the same woman who first warned him to leave, as her action is one of “redemption,” adding some kind of malevolent religious motif to this already adventurous night out on the town for Bill.

Warner Bros., supposedly, for purposes of securing a more favorable R rating, introduced digital figures to block out full viewing of the orgy scene. This was supposedly done with Kubrick’s approval, but it adds controversy to a film that will already be emotionally discussed to its pros and cons because of how the film was presented and that Kubrick was the director. There are many who would like to ambush the director who stopped talking to the media years ago and I suppose, this digital censorship issue is one way to get at him.

Back home Bill awakens his wife from a nightmare, where she is dreaming of sex with a myriad of different men. This scene is complex and telling, as it shows the liberation that the couple must undergo from their secret desires and how they manage to come to terms with each other and how they must reach out for love in an imperfect world. They desperately try, for once, to be honest about who they are.

Bill in his search for answers for what happened in the mansion now must force himself to play sleuth as he tries to track down his missing jazz friend, but is taken aback by discovering that the woman who saved his life has died of a drug overdose. He is further surprised that Ziegler knows that he was at the orgy as he confides that he also had him followed after the orgy as a friendly gesture, so that he can come to his senses and forget about it–that he doesn’t have an idea who he is starting up with by his playing amateur detective.

The last scene could be out of either The Godfatheror Fellini’s Satiyricon, as the mask stripped off Bill at the orgy is mysteriously lying on the bed next to the sleeping Alice.

The slide down a decadent path for the couple ends mirthfully, as their most fruitful conversation takes place in the toy department of a department store. The film ends on a seemingly depersonalized sexual note, as Alice’s answer to everything is a resounding let’s f***.

This film has all the earmarks of a masterpiece despite its let down in certain spots: Is the Cruise character worth all the fuss over saving? Is Kubrick’s overtly homosexual characterization of a desk clerk (Alan Cummings) gratuitous or necessary to show that Cruise attracts both men and women? It is probably a film that has to be seen a few times before its characterizations fully sink in and the power of its story can be fully appreciated. The obtuse nature of what really happened and the mind blowing affects of the couple’s dreams, are stunningly presented by a master of his craft– as are his re-created purgatory streets of NYC and in how he magnifies the bathroom used in Ziegler’s place out of its usual role of functionality. It becomes a laboratory where love and death and sex are equated in the same terms, and morality for the “New Age” is examined without the usual certitudes of a religion’s right or wrong tenets.

But this also puts the burden on the viewer to come up with his or her own answers on these matters. The dreams that have opened up the couple’s perspectives and driven a wedge between them before they came to some terms with themselves has still left them with a rocky road ahead. Sex our most intimate response to love is seen as being dehumanized, as evidenced by how impersonal sex is — from Cruise’s flirtations at a party to being with a prostitute to attending an orgy. An orgy the doctor would have gladly broken all his marriage vows for if allowed to participate. This two day whirlwind might be the beginning of who knows what for this bourgeois couple and that is scary, as most people want some reassurances about their future. People also should know who they are without identifying themselves with their career, as the doctor always does.

Kubrick asks all these questions about sex and he also asks what a marriage is. It is dissected as an institution based on property rights, and he puts all answers on hold and open for further negotiation.

A thinking man’s work of art has evolved and a very splendid film to end the century on, as well as to end the career of one of our most distinguished directors. In this film’s case all the hype the film got did not work against it, just as all the controversial opinions about whether this is a masterpiece or a piece of schlock art will be resolved in due time. But the odds favor Kubrick; some of his other masterpieces (Dr. Strangelove, 2001, Paths of Glory) were ripped apart early on by many an established critic, whose bitter criticisms came back to haunt them at a later date.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”