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Schnitzler's original novella.

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Eyes Wide Shut
Frederic Raphae








Eyes Wide Shut

July 22, 1999
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in the July 22-28, 1999 issue of Pitch Weekly.

The Late Stanley Kubrick may be the big screen’s most accomplished tease. His final movie is not nearly as provocative or outrageous as the rumor mill predicted. Still, it’s far from unsatisfying. Yes, real-life husband and wife Tom and Nicole Kidman do shed their clothes, but Eyes Wide Shut is more about jealousy and obsession than T&A.

The movie follows a strained period in the marriage of Bill and Alice Harford (Cruise and Kidman). The two at first seem to be in an enviable position. Bill is a New York doctor who caters to wealthy patients. As a result of his practice and some discreet work he has done for some well-heeled friends, his own income is not shabby. He also has a pretty daughter and a comfortable apartment.

eyes-wide-shut.jpg (16591 bytes)

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut.
1999 Warner Bros., used by permission.

Alice may share in Bill’s good fortune, but discontent is running through her mind. The art gallery she used to run has gone out of business, and she’s looking for another job. She’s also bothered by Bill’s attempts at social climbing. The two attend tepid, ritzy parties where she knows none of the guests. She stews at the thought of the potential kick Bill must get from touching his naked female patients. All this gives her a nagging ambivalence about her relationship with Bill.

After some passionate lovemaking and some potent reefer, Alice confesses her anxieties to Bill. When she admits to fantasizing about running off with an old acquaintance, he explodes. Feeling betrayed, Bill wanders the streets. Driven by jealousy, he entertains the advances of a prostitute and the grieving daughter of a deceased patient. His curiosity leads him to track down a mysterious society who hold elaborate costumed orgies. The participants don’t take kindly to his intrusion and warn him that all he once took for granted is now in jeopardy.

Kubrick uses these incidents not to make a conventional thriller, but a thoughtful comment on the challenges of intimacy. Taking his inspiration from Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Dream Story, Kubrick and cowriter Frederic Raphael simultaneously mock and celebrate conventional morality. It’s a bit difficult to warm to Bill and Alice, but much of their angst is universal. Marriage can be stifling, but it can also provide vital support in a world full of iniquity.

If Kubrick’s view of relationships is complicated, so is his presentation. Eyes Wide Shut is slow, offbeat and formal. Fortunately, it’s not dull. Although filmed in London, Eyes Wide Shut recreates a believably noisy and claustrophobic New York atmosphere. The grainy, bleached-out film stock nicely captures Bill Harford’s feverish, hazy mindset. In addition to these and other typical Kubrickian technical flourishes (his camera voyeuristically wanders into spots that seem physically impossible), he coaxes solid performances from all involved. Kubrick undermines Cruise’s usual swagger. Unlike most directors, he doesn’t attempt to make Cruise look taller. Doing so makes the actor appear more vulnerable to his surroundings. He also tones down some of Cruise’s trademark mannerisms, resulting in a more natural performance.

While Cruise is good and moonlighting director Sidney Pollack is terrific as a sleazy tycoon, the movie belongs to Kidman. If her screen time is less than half of her husband’s, she dominates the movie. Because of her unfulfilled dreams, Kidman’s character is a bit easier to relate to than her husband’s. Her unsettling monologues actually leave more of a lasting impression than her nude scenes.

Kubrick’s idiosyncratic touch is, as always, an acquired taste. The pivotal orgy is more solemn than arousing. (One wonders what the scene looked like before it was needlessly altered to placate the ratings board.) He often tells more about a character by a shot of his or her back instead of face. He sometimes uses the objects in the room instead of the actors to add insight into the characters. Bill’s place is nice, but it seems like a hovel compared to the dwellings of his patients. At times, this can be a bit off-putting. So can his strange use of music. He effectively employs eerie waltzes, but the sparse incidental piano music varies from tense to irritating.

With all the hype and the legacy of Kubrick’s past masterpieces like Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove, Eyes Wide Shut offers a lingering sense of disappointment. However, the director will always be remembered for his willingness to push the technical limits of cinema and for giving the movies new and fascinating things to say. He may not provide anything revolutionary in his final movie, but by taking a serious look at why human beings do the contemptible and occasionally commendable things they do, he has done more than enough.

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