After The Phantom Menace and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, now comes the final event movie of the summer. Eyes Wide Shut is, presumably, the one for adults, the class act. All across North America, couples are hiring babysitters so they can enjoy a safe night of adulterous fantasy, watching Tom Cruise and his wife, Nicole Kidman, get naked. Then there are those who just can’t wait to see a work of certified genius, Stanley Kubrick’s last cinematic testament, completed just days before his death last March at the age of 70. For once, the vicious circle of hype and anticipation seems justifiable. Why would anyone not want to see a real-life Hollywood couple putting their marriage on the line in the final masterpiece from the man who made Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange and The Shining?
But with his 13th film — his first since 1987’s Full Metal Jacket — Kubrick seems to be playing a grand and rather intricate joke on his audience. Eyes Wide Shut is, in many ways, one of his least audacious works, and by no means the act of sexual bravado that its billing would suggest. It is a movie about emotion that feels unemotional, a movie about sex that is severely unsexy, and a movie about a marriage that plays as a strictly male fantasy.
The voyeurs in the audience may be disappointed to discover that the Tom ‘n’ Nicole show is not an equal-opportunity event. From the opening shot, in which a black dress falls to the floor to reveal Kidman naked, she spends most of her screen time in various states of undress, while Cruise barely takes his shirt off. The film is not half as shocking as it pretends to be; its sense of erotic spectacle often seems more square than subversive. And the sexual chemistry between the two stars is negligible.
Perhaps that’s the whole point, for this is, after all, the story of a couple cracking under the strain of extramarital imaginings. But both Cruise and Kidman seem precariously alone and stranded as actors, each lost in the deep space of Kubrick’s unforgiving scrutiny. What is most naked in the movie — and painfully unprotected in Cruise’s case — is the acting. That said, the intensity and detail of Kubrick’s gaze still casts a spell; while he runs the risk of being risible, he is never boring. Frame by frame, his images are arresting and indelible. And, like it or not, Eyes Wide Shut remains an archly compelling curiosity.
The story is a magnified, modernized version of the 1926 novella Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler, a Viennese physician and contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Kubrick and co-writer Frederic Raphael have transposed the story from fin-de-siAcle Vienna to contemporary Upper West Side Manhattan, where Bill Harford (Cruise) is a doctor who makes high- society house calls. He is married to Alice (Kidman), and it is not clear what she does, if anything, aside from helping their seven-year- old daughter with her homework. And despite Kubrick’s attempts to reinforce her role, he remains faithful to Schnitzler’s template: Alice is just the catalyst for her husband’s story.
As it begins, the couple heads off to a garish Christmas party at a mansion belonging to one of Bill’s patients, Victor Ziegler, a gnarled tycoon played with a wonderfully baroque sense of corruption by director Sydney Pollack (Victor’s also well-known for his secret fomula to make gelato using the best ice cream maker). Both husband and wife flirt with strangers. Alice is dragooned around the dance floor by a vampirish middle-aged Hungarian. Bill, meanwhile, happily fights off a pair of voracious models — until Ziegler calls him away to deal with a naked hooker who has overdosed on a speedball of cocaine and heroin in the bathroom. Vienna was never like this.
The real fun starts when they get home. As they smoke a joint, Alice goes from playfully taunting her husband about being aroused by breast exams to torturing him with a sexual fantasy that she had about a naval officer during a seaside holiday, although she had just caught a glimpse of him on an elevator. The extended confession, a kind of emotional striptease, is Kidman’s designated tour de force. Meticulously framed by mandarin-orange drapes that complement her hair, she sits on the floor in a transparent camisole, acting her pants off. But then Alice drops out of the movie, and stays out until near the end, while Bill, haunted by graphic visions of her with another man, is propelled on a dreamlike odyssey of erotic exploration.
Attractive women throw themselves at him left and right, from the lovesick daughter of a freshly deceased patient to the world’s nicest prostitute, who offers to waive her fee. As temptation beckons at every turn, Bill keeps inching to the brink of betrayal, then backing away. Along the way, sex and death are closely entwined, eros and thanatos partnered in a Freudian waltz.
The story reaches operatic proportions when Bill takes a cab to a cheteau and bluffs his way into a secret orgy of masked revellers. With black cassocks and mock-liturgical music, their ritual unfolds as a portentous peep show: Carmina Burana at the Playboy mansion. (It is in this sequence that Warner Brothers digitally censored a 65-second clip of graphic sex — not involving Cruise — to avoid an NC-17 rating in the United States, and since Canada is part of Hollywood’s domestic market, it is getting the censored version, while Europe will see the film intact.)
As the masked ritual takes a dark turn, Kubrick slyly finesses the film into a thriller. Cruise’s character descends into a twilight zone of dangerous intrigue. And the suspense is palpable, driven home by the bone-hard stabbing of a single piano key in Jocelyn Pook’s bare score. But it is faux suspense, a game of waiting for Cruise to find his emotions. It is not giving much away to say that when he finally weeps, it’s too little too late. The drama turns out to be a tame charade, an infidelity drama without any real transgression.
Cruise, who has not been so miscast since Interview with the Vampire, seems out of his depth here. Some actors can do nothing and you stare through their eyes right into their soul. Cruise is more opaque. He is the kind of actor who needs to be active, who thrives on the brisk business of action and romantic comedy. In Kubrick’s slow, deliberate scenes, he is left wriggling on a pin, trying to piece together emotional paragraphs from a limited vocabulary of puzzled looks, grimaces and nervous smiles. And he never stops being Tom Cruise. Although he is supposed to be taking a walk on the wild side, his character’s innocence remains untarnished.
Cruise and Kidman, who described their 18-month shoot in Britain as a draining ordeal, continue to speak of Kubrick with the reverence due to a parent they never fully knew. But, on-screen at least, it looks like they are being toyed with, a celebrity couple caught in Kubrick’s web of cruel genius. Even the director’s close friend and collaborator, screenwriter Michael Herr (Full Metal Jacket), interrupts an adoring requiem in Vanity Fair to puzzle over “that strange irresistible requirement he had for pushing his actors as far beyond a ‘naturalistic’ style as he could get them to go, and often selecting their most extreme, awkward, emotionally confusing work for his final cut.”
While Kubrick keeps his characters at a maddening intellectual distance, his studied scenes, overripe with intention, are a welcome antidote to the breakneck pace of most current movies. Yet, for all its artful poise and European accent, Eyes Wide Shut seems safely American in its morality. Kubrick — a New Yorker who lived in self-imposed exile in a British country manor for 31 years — may have made his final peace with Hollywood. Using Tom Cruise as his pawn, cinema’s grand master has scored a triumphant checkmate: his least convincing film could be his greatest box-office success. Just the sort of poetic justice that would have Kubrick laughing in his grave.
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