Monday, December 22, 2008

A Re-Evaluation of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut

Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Sydney Pollack

Cerebral, brooding and darkly comic, Stanley Kubrick’s swansong, like his greatest films, requires multiple viewings before a full appreciation begins to sink in. And that is unfortunate, since this ambitious art film - even with two major stars – had a hard time competing for a repeat audience during the 1999 summer blockbuster season when it was originally released. Worse, few movies could live up to the expectations for Eyes Wide Shut. Fueled by more than a year of rumors about the plot, nearly all of them untrue, audiences were looking for the ultimate erotic film. This isn’t it. To say Cruise and Kidman do nothing more than nibble earlobes isn’t giving anything away. Rather, I’m doing film fans a favor by letting them know if they’ve come for a hot time, they’ll be disappointed. And that’s not their fault. It’s easy to get the wrong ideas about this picture.

Despite a teasing ad campaign from Warner Bros., this is not a movie about kinky sex featuring Hollywood’s most famous then-married couple. Or even yawn-inducing sex. In fact, in this picture they don’t have sex at all. Hardly does anyone else, except for the infamous orgy sequence. More on that in a moment.

Eyes Wide Shut is a tale of sexual obsession, with deep psychological undertones, told with the logic of a nightmare. Warner Bros. didn’t know how to market the film, so they botched the job. Kubrick didn’t help matters by dropping dead in March 1999 – mere days after delivering his final, approved cut of the film to the studio.I have seen this picture 15 times in the 9 years since it was released. On first viewing I was overwhelmingly disappointed. Kubrick, an unequivocal cinematic genius and one of my heroes, was dead and this was his last film and I thought it was a failure. But like so many other Kubrick films, time has a way of altering critical opinion.It was only by happenstance that I stumbled upon two keys that help unlock the mysteries of Eyes Wide Shut:-- I re-read James Joyce’s Ulysses about the same time I recently re-watched the picture. And it suddenly dawned on me – the structure of Eyes Wide Shut is remarkably similar to the episodic nature of Ulysses, which is divided into 18 episodes as protagonist Stephen Dedalus wanders the streets of Dublin during a single, eventful day. Kubrick tightens his film to one-third of the novel’s situations, with six episodes as Tom Cruise wanders the streets of Manhattan, and further into the Hamptons for a fateful encounter with powerful and dangerous individuals whose thirst for deviance nearly destroys him -- and his marriage.

-- Eyes Wide Shut is a meditation on the politics of marriage and the interplay of psychology, trust and fidelity that either defines the success of a union or leads to its dissolution.And now for a bit of plot:

Cruise and Kidman are wealthy Manhattanites (although the film was shot entirely in England) with a darling seven-year-old daughter and a well-appointed apartment. As Dr. William Harford, Cruise is a man at ease in high society, overly confident with himself and his place in the world. Kidman is Alice Harford, an art curator and seemingly devoted wife whose sexual fantasies threaten the couple’s complacent, insular life.

Their intimacy is established from the beginning, and not in an erotic way. The movie opens with a shot of Kidman slinking out of her black dress. Later, while her husband dresses for a Christmas party, they chat casually while she sits on the toilet, then wipes. It may be a cinematic first.

They attend a party hosted by the fabulously wealthy but decadent Victor Ziegler (Pollack), whose lifestyle provides a stunning peek inside the world of the super-rich.

The Harfords are an attractive, desirable couple. And they are not immune to temptation.
Alice dances and flirts at the party with an oily Hungarian aristocrat, while Dr. Harford soon finds two willing companions clinging to each arm. The Harfords barely rise above these attempted seductions. The doctor is about to wander off with his two bimbettes when his host sends for him. It’s urgent, a servant implores.

Upstairs, a beautiful model slumps in an upholstered chair in Ziegler’s bedroom.

"I think she OD’d," Ziegler says, seemingly more concerned about the impact this could have on him.

The doctor intervenes, calmly and without judgment. "You know," Harford tells the young woman as her eyelids flutter. "You really need to get into rehab."
He rejoins Alice and they leave the party, but all the attention and a head full of champagne have put hinky ideas in her mind by the time they get home.

Back at their apartment, Dr. Harford and Alice relax with a joint. But something’s turning in her mind. They argue about jealousy, fantasies and sexual politics. In a stunning sequence that illustrates the sudden chasm that can divide even the most committed couples, Alice confesses while stoned that she once saw a young naval officer who she would willingly have thrown away her marriage and family for a single night of sex.

The revelation shocks her husband, who is actually quite repressed and naive, unable to grasp the possibility that his wife could be unfaithful, even though it’s never made explicit that she actually would. But the possibility is enough to send the doctor reeling into the New York night, where he begins an odyssey of temptation and sexual obsession, flavored with syrupy decadence. Harford’s ego is so fragile that a chance comment from his stoned wife sends him out of the house on a dark quest for...indeed. For what? This is where the film begins to take on the tone and structure of Joyce’s greatest novel as the plot spirals into a stream-of consciousness string of increasingly bizarre situations.

Each stop along his journey draws Harford, fascinated, to a deeper level of sexual deviance. Each new encounter is more perverse than the preceding event. This isn’t as titillating as it sounds. I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), with less humor, more nudity and approximately the same weirdness quotient.

Following a chance encounter with an old college chum, now stroking the ivories at a smoky, midtown Manhattan jazz club, Harford learns of strange parties where his friend is forced to play blindfolded. But the piano player admits the blindfold once slipped and he saw garishly costumed men and mostly naked women doing, well, unspeakable things. The jazz player gives Harford the password to the party and slips away. (I note with amusement that the password is "Fidelio," the Latin for "Fidelity." It is also the title of Beethoven’s only opera).

For a troubled soul like Harford, this mysterious party provokes curiosity of a very high order. He persuades the owner of an uptown costume shop to reopen after midnight so Harford can rent a black cape and demonic mask. After an interminably long, silent ride, a taxi drops him at the gate of a mansion where a costumed Black Mass orgy is in full swing. This is the sequence where digital shadows and computer-generated "observers" were added to some scenes to obscure the copulation so the picture could qualify for an R rating, as opposed to the box-office poison of NC-17. (This illustrates the ridiculous problems with the rating system, since it deprives adults of the chance to experience what Kubrick intended, while actually making an adult-themed film more – not less – accessible to children.)

Harford certainly stares with eyes wide open as his conception of his comfortable world splinters like the glass shards in a kaleidoscope.

To reveal more would be unfair.

Kubrick’s stock-in-trade is metaphor and allegory. Here, he has created the cinematic equivalent of a fever dream. And that’s appropriate, since the source material is a 1926 novella Traumnovelle, or Dream Novel, by Arthur Schnitzler, a friend and student of Freud.

Stunningly photographed in the ultra-formal compositions that Kubrick favored, this is an often fascinating but flawed look at the complexities of marriage, sex and love, informed by a highly flexible notion of morality. Eyes Wide Shut may not be the final masterpiece I had hoped for from the late director, although in its dispassionate, darkly humorous view of humanity it is without question a Kubrick film. His imprimatur saturates every frame. And even mediocre Kubrick is more challenging than a dozen contemporary pictures, vying for audience attention at the octoplex.
I note with a final irony that feminists expressed some outrage at the seemingly gratuitous nudity and occasional objectification of women that permeates the picture. To that I say, "nonsense." It’s important when analyzing this film to remember that Alice merely gives voice to a sexual fantasy. Her husband goes out into the night and attempts to bring his fantasies to life. The difference is, of course, profound. And so, in the former, we see once again that pondering temptation is not a sin. Succumbing to temptation is. Dr. Harford salivates like Pavlov’s dog every time nubile female flesh is thrust before him. Depictions of the nudity merely underscore the overarching theme Kubrick was laying out for his audience.It is this: when it comes to fantasizing, talking about and engaging in sex, men can be such flaccid hypocrites.

Rated R for considerable nudity, sex and language.

Cinema Uprising © 2008 by Cinematic Cteve. All rights reserved.

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