Stanley Kubrick makes a movie about … monogamy. How good can that be?
Well, considering that Kubrick has always been a fundamentally moral filmmaker — several of his films rank among the most shattering anti-war statements of this century — it’s no surprise that, when fantasy bucked up against family, he would side with hearth and home.
Kubrick is never thought of as a sensualist. The idea of sex in a Kubrick movie is bound to evoke some completely anerotic image — a rape from A Clockwork Orange, the passing presence of a Vietnamese hooker in Full Metal Jacket, or maybe even the bedroom antics of the ridiculously macho (and aptly named) General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove. In no case is sex in the Kubrickian universe to be taken at face value.
Of his two movies that are actually about sex, one is a satire and the other is completely serious. Lolita bears the same relationship to Eyes Wide Shut that Dr. Strangelove does to both Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. In the course of a single film, you can feel Kubrick moving around a subject to see it from every conceivable vantage; over the course of his career, you’re aware of him triangulating all of those viewpoints to arrive at some semblance of truth.
I’m tempted to spell truth with a capital T, pretentious as that seems, because Kubrick was always so damned serious about his work. He’s often saddled with the reputation of a cold, clinical filmmaker, but Eyes Wide Shut belies that impression. It’s significant that the last film Kubrick would make would be his most sweet-minded; the film is billed as a study of sex and obsession, and it does indeed sport detours into near-madness, but it winds up being about love and trust after all.
Thematically, it resonates within the Kubrick catalog. Kubrick is fond of dramatizing moments of profound change — in individual lives, in political systems, and in entire species. Just as 2001: A Space Odyssey envisioned the evolution of all mankind, Eyes Wide Shut imagines one dark night as a potent moment of evolution in the nine-year history of a marriage. I only wish that Kubrick had lived long enough to shepherd this through the post-production process and into theaters. A notorious perfectionist, Kubrick has a long history of tweaking his films extensively, trimming significant chunks of celluloid up until (and sometimes beyond) the last possible minute. Given that Kubrick died months before the film rolled into theaters — and that he didn’t live to see Warner Bros. sacrifice a key scene at the altar of the ratings board — Eyes Wide Shut can only be seen as an unfinished work.
Although the teaser ad campaign, reportedly masterminded by Kubrick himself, gives equal billing to Cruise/Kidman/Kubrick, the film is really about Tom Cruise, playing to some extent a Kubrick surrogate (his apartment is modeled after one Kubrick and wife Christiane shared) who takes an After Hours-style detour into a surreal soundstage version of New York at night. The pale redhead gets the ball rolling in fine style, but is immediately shunted to the background, spending most of the movie asleep and dreaming while her husband wanders through a different sort of dreamworld.
Cruise and Kidman are Bill and Alice Harford, a conspicuously well-off pair of Manhattanites who arrive at a swank bash thrown by one of Dr. Bill’s patients (Sydney Pollack). In a key early sequence, the two of them are separated, and immediately draw all kinds of attention from representatives of the opposite gender. A couple of slinky models attach themselves to Bill’s arms, while Alice plays flirtatious drunk to a Hungarian on the make who comes on like Count Dracula. You get the feeling that this sort of thing happens to them all the time.
Cruise is, unfortunately, out of his league. His idea of “charming” is to regress so far into his boyish grin that he may as well be hiding behind his own teeth — you feel like you’re watching Risky Business again — and his idea of “conflicted” is to squinch up his eyes and lips a little and glare at the ground a few feet ahead of him. Never does he appear to be in any real danger, either mortal or spiritual, and that failure hurts the film. He is, however, some kind of ladykiller, and that helps keep the movie from seeming patently ridiculous later on, when every woman within earshot throws herself at him.
Kidman, meanwhile, is a drop-dead lovely woman who has built her reputation as an actress on roles that were handed to her on silver platters — a viciously ambitious weathergirl in To Die For, the conflicted young prefeminist of The Portrait of a Lady (in many ways her best performance), and the series of star-vehicle caricatures written into David Rabe’s London and Broadway sensation The Blue Room (in which she was wildly uneven). Here, Kubrick hands her two scenes that are arguably the film’s strongest — a pair of erotic monologues, one recounting a long-standing obsession with a stranger and another describing a dream in hushed, ashamed tones, that recall the similar centerpieces of Bergman’s Persona and Godard’s Weekend. (Kubrick’s take on this is less sensitive than Bergman’s, yet less clinical than Godard’s.) For the first of these her character has been smoking pot, and for the second, she has just risen from a deep sleep. This gives Kidman some latitude in terms of her performance, which is riveting by sheer force of will but also a bit overbaked.
It’s the first one, a lustful recollection of her overwhelming desire (not acted on) for a handsome sailor, that sends husband Bill out into the streets of New York at night, navigating an eerily desolate Greenwich Village around whose every corner lurks a new unwholesome sexual opportunity. There’s the daughter of one of Bill’s patients, who confesses urgently to her longstanding infatuation with the doctor. There’s the beautiful young prostitute who invites Bill into her first-floor apartment like a college coed seducing a classmate. There’s another daughter, this one a cherubic teenager who’s kept in a basement for unwholesome purposes. And, finally, there’s the film’s centerpiece orgy sequence, apparently set somewhere on Long Island, in which costumed onlookers watch the participants have sex wearing nothing but masks.
It’s easy to take shots against this lavish sex party; the film’s critics have been unsparing in their derision of Kubrick’s vision of hedonism. But to treat this long, ornate sequence as Kubrick’s idea of a turn-on is to miss the point entirely — porn never had such dark undercurrents. (You’d have to go all the way back to the supremely depressing Café Flesh, I think, to find a sex film that was so aware of its own joyless, dehumanized quality — and this one winds up in a morgue.) And Kubrick has a visual sensitivity that your garden-variety skin flick never dreamed of.
Specifically, those masks — eerie and beautiful, they carry the film to a level of ironic expressiveness missing from the previous reels. In one shot, a cloaked, masked Harford looks up to a balcony from which other partygoers spy on the proceedings. A man and a woman are looking directly at him — the man has a white, mouthless mask that can only be described as bird-like, while the woman wears a rounder, delicate face with a large teardrop on one cheek. The man and the woman nod to Harford, as though they recognize him — an apparent impossibility, given the circumstances, and one that’s somehow chilling as hell. As Kubrick stages and photographs it, it’s a breathtaking moment.
Masks are key to Kubrick’s idea about the ways that Harford relates to his wife as well as to the world around them. Harford crashes the party full of hubris; donning an appropriate disguise, he feels that he can move among these strangers with ease. The first ritual that he witnesses involves a circle of masked nude woman; in pairs, the women lean toward one another and “kiss,” the lips of their masks lightly brushing. The image is both beautiful and absurd. (It reminded me of the “erotic” tableaux of early 70s Italian horror films.) But that absurdity communicates a real idea having to do with the impossibility of tenderness or intimacy among those wearing masks. In a neat twist, one of the partygoers recognizes Cruise instantly and urges him to leave (the film follows the logic of dreams). And by the end of the film, Harford will realize that his wife has, finally, been nothing less than honest with him; it’s time for him to remove his own mask and confess his pain and insecurity.
Of course, masks are the primal symbol of drama, dating back to the ancient Greek stage. It’s surely a bit of sly casting on Kubrick’s part that his movie about sex and masks stars Tom Cruise, one of the most recognizable thespians in the modern world (on one level, you can think of Eyes Wide Shut as the art-film counterpart to Notting Hill). Those persistent rumors about Cruise’s sexuality? Oh yes, they’re referenced here, both in an early scene featuring a gay-baiting gang of street kids and in a later one showcasing Alan Cumming as a goo-goo eyed desk clerk.
And of course, there’s that self-conscious make-out scene between Tom and Nicole — which sticks out like a sore thumb in the context of the film — shot in front of a full-length mirror and set to the tune of “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing,” which Kubrick shot, excerpted, and released as a give-the-people-what-they-want teaser for a gathering of theatrical exhibitors. Never let it be forgotten that Kubrick was, among all other things, a great showman. You could say that leaving this as his final film was one of the most audacious (if inadvertantly so) moves of his career — in death, the obsessive perfectionist demigod of film history is revealed to be an optimist at heart. A-