by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Writing about Eyes Wide Shut in Time, Richard Schickel had this to say about its source, Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle: “Like a lot of the novels on which good movies are based, it is an entertaining, erotically charged fiction of the second rank, in need of the vivifying physicalization of the screen and the kind of narrative focus a good director can bring to imperfect but provocative life—especially when he has been thinking about it as long as Kubrick had”—i.e., at least since 1968, when he asked his wife to read it. This more or less matches the opinion of Frederic Raphael, Kubrick’s credited cowriter, as expressed in his recent memoir, Eyes Wide Open. But I would argue that Traumnovelle is a masterpiece worthy of resting alongside Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Kafka’s The Trial, and Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl. Like the Poe story, it features a phantasmal masked ball with dark and decadent undercurrents, and like the Kafka and Hedayat novels, it continually and ambiguously crosses back and forth between fantasy and waking reality. But it differs from all three in having a development that might be described as therapeutic—Schnitzler, a doctor, was a friend of Freud—making Eyes Wide Shut a rare departure for Kubrick and concluding his career with the closest thing in his work to a happy ending. Moreover, the question about the novella isn’t whether Kubrick has “brought it to life”—it lives vibrantly without him, even if he has brought it to a lot of people’s attention, including mine—but whether he’s done it justice, a problem also raised by his films of Lolita and A Clockwork Orange.
I read Traumnovelle before I saw the movie, which hindered as well as helped my first impressions. The last time I tried this with a Kubrick film was when I read Stephen King’s The Shining before seeing the film and found that King’s novel, whatever its literary limitations, was genuinely scary, whereas Kubrick’s movie, for all its brilliance, generally wasn’t. Yet practically all of Kubrick’s films improve with age and repeated viewings, and scary or not, his version of The Shining fascinates me a lot more than King’s. I can’t say the same about Lolita; Vladimir Nabokov’s novel improves with rereading a lot more than Kubrick’s film improves with reviewing. And A Clockwork Orange is a draw: I embrace the moral ambiguity of Anthony Burgess’s novel and detest the morality of Kubrick’s film, yet I’d rather see the film again than reread the novel. In the case of Eyes Wide Shut I’m inclined to think Kubrick has done Schnitzler’s masterpiece justice. Allowing for all the differences between Vienna in the 20s and New York in the 90s and between Jews and WASPs, it’s a remarkably faithful and ingenious adaptation. Kubrick made this movie convinced that relationships between couples haven’t significantly changed over the past 70-odd years, and whether you find it a success probably depends a lot on whether you agree with him.
I won’t attempt a full synopsis, but I have to outline chunks of the first two-thirds of the plot to make certain points. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), a successful New York doctor, and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), the former manager of a Soho art gallery, attend a fancy Christmas party at the town house of Victor Ziegler (played to perfection by Sydney Pollack), one of Bill’s wealthy patients, where each engages in flirtation—Alice with a Hungarian lounge lizard, Bill with a couple of models. Bill recognizes the orchestra’s pianist, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), as a former classmate and chats with him briefly; later he’s called upstairs by Ziegler to help revive a naked hooker he’s been screwing who’s overdosed on drugs. Bill and Alice make love when they get home that night, clearly stimulated by their flirtations, but the following evening, after they smoke pot, Alice begins to challenge Bill’s total confidence in her faithfulness by telling him a story that shocks him, about her passionate attraction to a naval officer she glimpsed only briefly when they were at Cape Cod with their little girl the previous summer.
Called away by the death of a patient, Bill is haunted by images of Alice having sex with the officer, and his night and the following day and night turn into a string of adventures consisting of sexual temptations or provocations that come his way with and without his complicity—all of which prove abortive. The dreamlike interruptions and certain passing details share some of the same hallucinatory texture—as they do in Schnitzler’s story—so that even waitresses glimpsed in a diner and coffeehouse and a gay hotel desk clerk suggest sexual possibilities. The daughter (Marie Richardson) of the man who has just died is engaged to be married soon yet suddenly declares her love for Bill. Wandering the streets afterward, he’s harassed by college kids who think he’s gay (in Traumnovelle the hero is Jewish and the students anti-Semites), then picked up by a prostitute named Domino (Vinessa Shaw). He finally winds up at the Sonata Cafe, where Nick Nightingale is playing with a jazz quartet. Nick has a gig later that night as a blindfolded pianist at a costumed orgy in a country house on Long Island, and Bill, after discovering the password, persuades Nick to give him the address. He then proceeds to a costume-rental shop to acquire a tux, cloak, and mask, and takes a taxi to the house. Eventually exposed as an intruder, he fears for his life until a masked woman mysteriously offers to sacrifice herself for him.
When he finally arrives home he wakes Alice from a troubled dream involving the naval officer and an orgy in which she participates while laughing scornfully at Bill, which she recounts. It’s one of the movie’s many indications that the unclear separations of imagination and reality include many rhyme effects between Alice’s dreams and fantasies and Bill’s reality as well as rhymes between her fantasies and his (such as her having sex with the naval officer). In fact, though the film initially appears to be mainly about Bill because it follows him around more than Alice, Alice’s confession and dream are just as important as anything that happens to him; in some respects, thanks to Kubrick’s (and Schnitzler’s) careful calibrations in the storytelling, she makes an even stronger impression than he does, especially because she seems more in touch with her fantasy life than he is with his own. And some of the rhyme effects create disquieting connections—between a sexual invitation at Ziegler’s party (“Do you know where the rainbow ends?”) and the name of the costume shop (Rainbow) and between the password to the orgy, “Fidelio,” which suggests the Italian word for “faithful,” and Bill’s failure to betray her there. (Schnitzler’s story is full of comparable echo effects: there the password to the orgy is “Denmark,” which happens to be where the hero’s wife was tempted to commit adultery.)
For years, two misleading adjectives have been used to describe Kubrick’s work: “cold” and “perfectionist.” “Cold” implies unemotional, and it simply isn’t true that Kubrick’s films lack emotion. They’re full of emotions, though most of them are so convoluted and elusive that you have to follow them as if through a maze—perhaps the major reason his films become richer with repeated viewing. He so strongly resists sentimentality that cynicism and derision often seem close at hand, and one difficulty I had with Eyes Wide Shut the first time I saw it was accepting the caricatural side of Kubrick—his handling of Cruise’s “normality” in the lead role as Dr. William Harford and the mincing mannerisms of the gay hotel desk clerk—as something other than malicious. My memory of Kubrick’s mocking inflation of Jack Nicholson’s narcissism in the second half of The Shining made me think he was being equally diabolical here about Cruise’s narcissism, but a second look at the movie has rid me of this impression. Maybe Steve Martin would have made a more interesting Harford; according to Michael Herr in Vanity Fair, Martin was Kubrick’s first choice for the role 20 years ago. But using a real couple such as Cruise and Kidman had obvious advantages as well.
That Bill Harford lies to his wife about both his lust for the models at Ziegler’s party and the reason Ziegler called him upstairs identifies him at the outset as a glib hypocrite who thinks privilege can get him anywhere—which differentiates him somewhat from Schnitzler’s hero—but that doesn’t mean Kubrick views him with contempt. The remainder of the story may undermine Harford’s confidence, but Kubrick doesn’t let us know whether his recounting of his nocturnal adventures to Alice near the end of the movie is fully or only partially honest—we don’t hear any of it. All we know is that it brings them both to tears.
Ironically, the major difference between Kubrick and Schnitzler may be that Kubrick is more of a moralist, even if he’s unusually subtle about it. The only important invented character in Eyes Wide Shut, Ziegler, is the only one I regard as unambiguously evil. But Ziegler’s evil, unlike mad Jack Torrance’s in The Shining, is wrapped in impeccable manners, so some viewers may conclude that he’s an OK guy. I saw his darker side mainly in glancing hints, such as his momentary reluctance to wait an hour before sending home the hooker after she recovers from her drug-induced coma. He’s a charming monster—a statement about class and power and a composite portrait of every Hollywood executive Kubrick ever had to contend with. In this respect, Ziegler is closely allied to the highly cultivated General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) in Paths of Glory—the true villain of that film, in contrast to the more obvious and scapegoated villain, General Mireau (George Macready), who’s openly hypocritical and malicious.
The climactic dialogue between Harford and Ziegler in Ziegler’s huge town house—a remarkable scene that runs a little over 13 minutes—has been getting some flack from reviewers who claim it explains too much. But it explains nothing conclusive, apart from Ziegler’s Zeus-like access and power—in a billiards room that seems to belong on Mount Olympus, like the chateau in Paths of Glory—and Harford’s ultimate remoteness from those reaches; Ziegler holds all the cards, and we and Harford hold none. Critic David Ehrenstein recently told me he thought Barry Lyndon was Kubrick’s most Jewish movie in its depiction of social exclusion, but that was before he saw Eyes Wide Shut.
The second misleading label attached to Kubrick’s work, “perfectionist,” might be plausible if it were used to describe his choice of lenses, his ideas about decor, or his obsession with prints and projection. But usually it’s used to describe his habit of demanding multiple drafts from writers and repeated takes from actors. Everyone seems to agree that such demands stemmed largely from Kubrick’s not knowing what he wanted except through negative indirection, but this is a far cry from what’s usually meant by perfectionism. His use of improvisation with actors to great effect—most famously Peter Sellers in Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, but probably also Timothy Carey in The Killing and Paths of Glory, and Kidman in some stretches of Eyes Wide Shut—further complicates this notion of perfectionism, as does his use of handheld cameras for filming violence in movies as diverse as The Killing and Barry Lyndon, which involves a certain amount of chance and improvisation. Kubrick came of age artistically during the same period as action painting, and in his work classical notions of composing frames and telling stories vie with other aspects of the artistic process that are more random and less controllable. (Paradoxically, Kubrick’s perfectionism in some areas prevented him from being a perfectionist in others. He wouldn’t allow the Venice film festival to show his films subtitled at a retrospective during the shooting of Eyes Wide Shut because he didn’t have enough time to check the prints, so the festival had to show dubbed versions he’d already approved.)
Convoluted emotions and negative indirection are two ways Kubrick deliberately kept himself innocent of his own intentions, especially in his later movies. Positing himself as the ideal spectator of his own films, he wanted to be surprised by what his writers and actors did, and that entailed refusing to impose interpretations on his stories, striving to keep some particulars of his stories free from his intellect, and ultimately letting his unconscious do part of the work. (Jacques Rivette has used the same modus operandi in some of his own features, especially during the 70s.)
This dialectic between control and lack of control eventually became not only Kubrick’s method but part of his subject. As Gilles Deleuze noted in Cinema 2: The Time-Image, “In Kubrick, the world itself is a brain, there is an identity of brain and world”; Deleuze singles out such central images as the war room in Dr. Strangelove, the computer housing HAL’s circuits in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Overlook Hotel in The Shining as examples of what he meant, to which I might add the racetrack in The Killing and the training camp in Full Metal Jacket. Moreover, Deleuze writes, the monolith in 2001 “presides over both cosmic states and cerebral stages: it is the soul of the three bodies, earth, sun, and moon, but also the seed of the three brains, animal, human, machine.” And in each film the brain, the world, and the system connecting the two start to break down from internal and external causes, resulting in some form of dissolution (The Killing), annihilation (of the world in Dr. Strangelove and HAL’s brain in 2001), mutilation (of the brain in A Clockwork Orange and the body in Barry Lyndon), or madness (The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, which also chart respectively the dissolution of a family and a fighting unit).
Building on Deleuze’s insight, critic Bill Krohn has proposed, in the only plausible account I’ve read of the structure of Full Metal Jacket, that “the little world of the training camp…is portrayed as a brain made up of human cells thinking and feeling as one, until its functioning is wrecked first from within, when a single cell, Pyle, begins ruthlessly carrying out the directives of the death instinct that programs the organ as a whole, and then from without by the Tet Offensive, the external representation of the same force.” As a result, in the second part of the film “the narrative itself begins to malfunction” along with the group mind, exploding “the conventional notion of character” and drifting off in several different directions.
There’s no such narrative breakdown in Eyes Wide Shut, which proceeds in conventional linear fashion throughout—though interludes created by a fantasy and a dream Alice recounts are every bit as important as waking events. This time the “brain” belongs to neither a single character (like HAL) nor a group (like the soldiers in Full Metal Jacket) but to a happily married couple—to their shared experience and the world created between them—and the threat of a breakdown, which forms the narrative, is eventually overcome. In this case the “identity of brain and world” is more explicit, and negotiating a relationship between the two, between dreaming and waking, is what the movie is all about. Even the title tells you that.
“Among those I would call the ‘younger generation,’ Kubrick appears to me to be a giant,” Orson Welles said in a Cahiers du Cinéma interview in the mid-60s, after the release of his adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. Stressing that The Killing was superior to The Asphalt Jungle and that Kubrick was a better director than John Huston, Welles added, “What I see in him is a talent not possessed by the great directors of the generation immediately preceding his, I mean [Nicholas] Ray, [Robert] Aldrich, etc. Perhaps this is because his temperament comes closer to mine.”
Both Welles and Kubrick started out in their early 20s, both died at the age of 70, and both completed 13 released features. Another significant parallel is that both ended up making all the films they completed after the 50s in exile, which surely says something about the creative possibilities of American commercial filmmaking over the past four decades. But in other respects their careers proceeded in opposite directions: Welles entered the profession at the top when it came to studio resources and wound up shooting all his last pictures on a shoestring and without studio backing; Kubrick began with shoestring budgets and wound up with full studio backing and apparently all the resources he needed.
On this basis one could argue that Kubrick succeeded in working within the system while retaining his independence on every picture except Spartacus, while Welles retained his independence sporadically, imperfectly, and ultimately at the price of working outside the system. Yet the price paid by Kubrick for his success—a sense of paranoid isolation that often seeped into his work and as few completed features as Welles—can’t be discounted. (By isolation I don’t mean to endorse the “hermit” myth that the press always attaches to artists who are reluctant to speak to reporters—including Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger as well as Kubrick; I mean his more general habits as a relatively sedentary control freak who spent a lot of time on the phone.)
Inside and outside, interiors and exteriors, form as important a dialectic in his work as control and lack of control, which is perhaps one reason the interiors in his films gradually seem to grow larger—from the dingy lairlike apartments of The Killing to the chateau in Paths of Glory, from the spaceship in 2001 to the hotel in The Shining. This culminates in the palatial interiors of Eyes Wide Shut, which contrast with the claustrophobic railroad flat shared by two women and the cluttered costume shop. The throwaway and sometimes artificial quality of the exteriors conforms to the same expressionist system, and if the overall spatial orientation of the interiors at times recalls Welles, it’s the Welles who wound up alternating oversize and cramped interiors in The Trial. Many reviewers of Eyes Wide Shut have been citing Martin Scorsese’s After Hours—a picture even more indebted to Welles’s The Trial in its handling of paranoia—but Welles’s influence on Scorsese can be taken as a filtered form of Kafka’s influence. (Kafka’s story, unlike Welles’s, is set almost entirely in cramped spaces.) In Schnitzler’s novella the two scenes in the costume shop are already pure Kafka, especially in the uncanny way the relationships of the characters shift between the hero’s two visits, and Kubrick catches both the queasiness and the unhealthy sexuality of Kafka at least as effectively as Welles did. Perhaps significantly, this is the only scene in which Kubrick allows the story’s eastern European origins to come out, most noticeably in the accent and appearance of the shop owner (Rade Sherbedgia).
There are already signs that Eyes Wide Shut is dividing critics, sometimes along regional, even tribal lines. Most Chicago critics are enthusiastic, but a good many New York critics aren’t, apparently in part because the contemporary New York this movie conjures up—basically shot on sets in England, apart from a few stray second-unit shots of New York streets—isn’t their city. It’s true that Kubrick—born and raised in the Bronx but for many years an expatriate who refused to fly—didn’t go near Manhattan in the 90s, and the movie clearly reflects that. But given the highly stylized and even mannerist nature of his late work, I can’t see how this matters much. (There’s some disagreement in the press about when he last visited New York. I’m fairly certain I spotted him in Soho in 1980 around the time The Shining came out; he was sloppily dressed and was methodically tearing down a poster from a streetlamp advertising an interview with him in the Soho News.)
The kind of jazz played by Nick Nightingale in the Sonata Cafe seems a good two or three decades off, and the nightclub itself seems like an improbable throwback to the 50s. It’s even more out-of-date than the nightclub jazz in the second feature of Kubrick’s former producer James B. Harris, Some Call It Loving (1973)—a fascinating cross-reference to Eyes Wide Shut in its treatment of erotic dreaming that deserves to be better known. But if we can accept the precise yet highly stylized city of Fritz Lang’s M as early 30s Berlin—and presumably Berliners of that period did—we shouldn’t have any trouble accepting this paraphrase of 90s Manhattan.
Other objections include the film’s methodical slowness (especially apparent in the delivery of the dialogue), its failure to live up to the hype and rumors about its sexual content, and the stupid and tacky digital “enhancements” added to the orgy sequence to fulfill Kubrick’s contractual agreement to deliver an R-rated film. The enhancements, by exposing the routine idiocy of the MPAA ratings, may help to foster some overdue reform. At the very least they show how American adult moviegoers are treated like children, unlike their European counterparts who can see Eyes Wide Shut without these digital fig leaves, basically for the sake of Warners’ moneygrubbing, which allows for an eventual “director’s cut” on video and DVD, generating more income while avoiding the risk of an NC-17 rating. Apparently corporate indifference to the public’s understanding prevented most critics, including me, from seeing this movie until the last possible minute before writing their initial reviews. That Warners has also chosen to conceal the degree to which Eyes Wide Shut was unfinished when Kubrick died—he hadn’t yet completed the sound mixing, which, as David Cronenberg recently pointed out, can’t be discounted as a creative part of the filmmaking process—clears the way for critics to complain that the public is being sold a bill of goods.
But Kubrick recut both 2001 and The Shining after they opened commercially, and a climactic pie-throwing free-for-all in the war room in Dr. Strangelove was cut shortly before the film opened. Obviously what constitutes a “finished” Kubrick film has long been somewhat tenuous. Undoubtedly he would have made a few slight adjustments in Eyes Wide Shut had he lived longer—he probably would have fixed the bumpy sound edit at the end of Bill and Alice’s lovemaking scene and perhaps shortened the sequence in which Bill is followed by a generic bald man in a trenchcoat—which means that the released version is in some ways a rough cut. But I regard the opportunity to view a Kubrick rough cut as a privilege. What I resent is Warners’ refusal to clarify which portions and aspects of the sound mix were completed by others and how this was carried out—and the only defense I can think of for that is the profit motive.
Most reviews of every Kubrick picture since 2001 have been mired in misapprehensions and underestimations—many of which are corrected years later without apology, one reason he apparently gave up on critics about 30 years ago. This doesn’t necessarily mean he was always ahead of his time: one of the best things about Eyes Wide Shut—evident in such artisanal qualities as the old-fashioned sound track, the grainy photography, and the exquisite color balances (such as the dark blue lighting of a bathroom behind one of Kidman’s monologues)—is that it isn’t a film of the 90s in most respects but something closer to what movies at their best used to be. (Some reviewers have alluded to Schnitzler’s “fin de siecle Vienna,” apparently trying to force a relationship to fin de siecle New York, but Traumnovelle was written and published over a quarter of a century too late for that.) The Harfords’ apartment calls to mind an Otto Preminger noir film of the 40s or 50s, and the costume orgy harks all the way back to silent cinema—not to mention Georges Franju’s Judex—in its ceremonial intensity.
The film credits a lighting cameraman but no director of photography, which has led critic Kent Jones to surmise correctly that Kubrick shot most of it himself. This is personal filmmaking as well as dream poetry of the kind most movie commerce has ground underfoot, and if a better studio release comes along this year I’ll be flabbergasted.
Chicago Reader, 22 July 1999