by Richard Schickel
History and horror, crime and war, sci-fi and sexual transgression. He may have made only 13 feature films in the course of his 46-year career, but Stanley Kubrick covered a range that more prolific filmmakers might—and often did—envy. But whether the films were set in the deep past or the near future, whether their prevailing tone was comic or violent, sly or brutish, weary or idealistic, Kubrick really made the same movie over and over again—vivid, brilliant, emotionally unforgiving, imagistically unforgettable variations on the theme that preoccupied him all his mature life.
That theme was at once simple and sophisticated: a man (or sometimes a group of men), without thinking very hard about it, places his faith either in his own rationality or in the rationality of the systems by which his world is governed, whereupon something goes awry, his illusions of order are stripped away, and he is left to fend with the sometimes deadly, always devastating consequences of that loss.
These occurrences need not be cataclysmic. They can be something as simple as the sight of a young girl practicing with her Hula Hoop (Lolita). Or a communications goof in the supposedly fail-safe nuclear-defense program (Dr. Strangelove). Or, as in the case of Eyes Wide Shut—which opened in the U.S. on July 16 after years of wildly misguided speculation about its content—a confession of unconsummated sexual flirtation.
Such incidents are usually not things most people notice much or worry about greatly. And often enough they’re right. Normality generally reasserts itself after one of these blips.
The films that Kubrick cared about—there were three early ones he disowned—are all in one way or another explorations of how minor mishaps can grow into major disasters, with the one exception of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which miscalculation leads to redemption, rebirth, a radiant transcendence of ordinary expectations. But Eyes Wide Shut, though it is finally less bleak in its moral implications than most Kubrick movies, is in the more typical line of a man perpetually disappointed by the world’s failure to abide by his standards of logic and civility.
Why, then, the avid interest in it, the reams of goofy gossip and scandalized speculation that have surrounded its lengthy creation and its strong opening at the U.S. box office? (It has since lost some steam.) Maybe it had something to do with the very long time between Kubrick pictures—the last one, Full Metal Jacket, was released 12 years ago. Maybe the director’s increasing elusiveness had its effect. He had quit talking to reporters years ago, and it seemed to the media’s increasingly resentful minions that he got around in public even less than he formerly had, which was not very much. On the other hand, Eyes Wide Shut did encompass the three elements that legitimately capture the public’s attention—story, stars, director—in a particularly piquant package.
When Warner Bros. (which is owned by Time Warner, the parent company of this magazine) announced the project in 1995, it merely stated that Kubrick was making “a story of sexual jealousy and obsession starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.” Officially, no one has added anything substantive to that press release in the years since—which is, of course, why the rumor that Cruise and Kidman play psychiatrists drawn into a web of sexual intrigue with their patients got started. And the one about the mad genius Kubrick making an NC-17-rated blue movie. And the one that has Cruise wearing a dress in one sequence.
None of these is remotely true. Movies don’t always follow the books on which they’re based, but in this case anyone able to track down the novel from which the movie has been rather faithfully adapted by Kubrick and co-writer Frederic Raphael would have been more in the know. Titled Traumnovelle (Dream Story), it was first published in 1926 by Arthur Schnitzler, a Viennese playwright, physician and friend of Freud’s, and has been available in paperback in the U.S. since 1995. 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.
Kubrick’s widow Christiane remembers his asking her to read the book as far back as 1968, when he was looking for something to follow 2001. She also remembers not caring greatly for it at the time, probably because she had become “allergic to psychiatric conversations.” But Kubrick, she recalls, took the passion of their arguments about the “dream story” as evidence that material so stirring must be worth doing. In any case, using Jay Cocks, then a young film reporter for Time, as a front, on the grounds that Cocks might acquire rights to the book more cheaply than a famous filmmaker could, Kubrick bought the property. For the next 2 1/2 decades the book haunted him.
One could see, and somehow not quite see, the movie in this story of a fashionable yet conscientious physician and his wife whose nine-year marriage has produced an adored child, genuine mutual affection and a growing sexual restlessness. Everything depended on its realization. Cruise’s character, Dr. William Harford, is in some ways a dim and passive fellow, self-victimized and hard to care for. His wife Alice would have been easy to play either ditsy or bitchy. But there is in Cruise a kind of passionate watchfulness and in Kidman a desperate and touching candor, and they keep drawing us past the narrative’s improbabilities to its human heart. As for Kubrick, he is typically unsentimental and tough-minded, but his tracking shots are as unselfconscious as ever, gracefully enfolding us in his story.
Kubrick needed to be at his best, for the story turns on a very thin dime. The night after a grand party, at which both husband and wife indulge in potentially dangerous flirtations, she taunts him about his relationships with his female patients and insists on burdening him with a tale of an encounter she had at a seaside resort, where she and a young naval officer eyed each other erotically. Nothing more than that happened, but she tells her husband, in language that is almost identical in novel and screenplay, “Had he called me—I thought—I could not have resisted him … and at the same time you were dearer to me than ever.”
Cruise’s William accepts this dubious reassurance but is haunted by powerfully lubricious visions of his wife making love to the officer as he goes about his night-time rounds in modern New York City, which Kubrick has substituted for Schnitzler’s fin-de-siècle Vienna. The possibilities of relief—or should we call it revenge?—are everywhere: a newly dead patient’s daughter comes on to William powerfully yet pathetically; a cheerful prostitute invites him to a casual coupling; and, finally, in the movie’s central sequence, he succeeds in invading a secret orgy, where masked couples disport themselves sexually in a display that is more grim than wanton.
In all these encounters eros and thanatos are exquisitely mixed. The dead body of the first woman’s father is clearly visible as she confesses her confused passion; the prostitute turns out to be under the threat of aids; the orgiasts, resenting William’s intrusion on their saturnalia, threaten him with humiliation and death, and he is “redeemed” only by the intervention of a mysterious woman, who pays for his life with her own.
The orgy sequence, along with several others in the film, is full of naked (and mainly handsome) flesh. But as Christiane Kubrick says, “It has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with fear,” and although this is the point Kubrick very obviously wanted to make, it may not be a point audiences want to take. Indeed, the deepest daring of Eyes Wide Shut lies in the way it keeps edging viewers toward a place they want very much to go (famous people making out before the camera, for example), then dashing those hopes. It is also a movie that, to put the matter bluntly, constantly edges right up to the thin line separating the emotionally persuasive from the risible, and one that at any moment in the process of (literally) fleshing out the novel’s abstractions could dissolve into the unconsciously comical. That’s the most obvious danger when your subject is not sex itself, where there are plenty of conventions to guide the filmmaker, but sex in the mind, for which there are very few precedents to guide him.
But Kubrick was used to that danger, even appeared to revel in it. Most of his pictures, whatever their genre roots, disappointed genre expectations, not to mention critical anticipation and occasionally the studio’s box-office ambitions. As Eyes Wide Shut seeks to avoid those perils, it has something besides its considerable intrinsic merits going for it.
That something is Cruise and Kidman. Kubrick was usually star shy, preferring ensemble casts of solid players to huge names. But when Terry Semel, who runs Warner Bros. in tandem with Robert Daly, gave the project its green light, he said, “What I would really love you to consider is a movie star in the lead role; you haven’t done that since Jack Nicholson [in The Shining].” Kubrick was concerned that a movie star wouldn’t share his tireless work ethic. Nevertheless, the Cruises were approached
The couple gave themselves over entirely to the project. It was, as both Cruise and Kidman agree, never a question of filling in the preordained blanks as efficiently as possible. Nor was it a matter of dithering over lining up or lighting a shot. All the technical side of moviemaking Kubrick had long since absorbed into his bones. It was always a question of getting the emotions right, bit by painful, exhilarating bit. Kubrick insisted on working as no one else in movies does, but as artists in the other forms—painting, music, literature—do: finding the piece as it goes along. That, of course, requires time, and with that he was profligate, ever willing to explore the possibly rewarding digression.
Sidney Pollack, the film director, who replaced Harvey Keitel as Victor Ziegler, the character who ties together all the evil that Cruise’s character discovers and who is the most significant addition to the original story, observes that “Stanley had figured out a way to work in England for a fraction of what we pay here. While the rest of us poor bastards are able to get 16 weeks of filming for $70 million with a $20 million star, Stanley could get 45 weeks of shooting for $65 million.” In short, says Pollack, “he ensured himself the luxury of trying to work out something that’s as complicated emotionally as this film was.”
Cruise and Kidman, perhaps still caught up in their detailed work with Kubrick, prefer to see the movie rather indeterminately. “The movie is whatever the audience takes from it,” says Cruise. “Wherever you are in life, you’re going to take away something different.” Kidman says, “I don’t think its a morality tale. It’s different for every person who watches it.” But others draw distinct lessons from the film. Pollack says this “is the story of a man who journeys off the path and then finds his way back onto it, a man who almost loses himself because something awakens a darker part of him, and he follows it against his own better sense.” When “he realizes that what he’s lived through was about values so far below what he’s lived his life for, he’s devastated.”
Anya Kubrick, one of the director’s three daughters, goes further. She regards Eyes Wide Shut as “a very personal statement from my father. He felt very strongly about this subject and theme, and he honed down in it exactly the ideas, principles and moral philosophies he had lived by.” Large among them, she says, was the idea that “we are all both good and evil, and if you think you have no evil in you, you’re not looking hard enough.” Her mother Christiane says the film reflects Kubrick’s belief that “most of humanity is not quite bright enough to know what they want and plan how to get it.” He did. But like everyone who knew Kubrick, she is at an angry loss to explain the public perception of him as a reclusive, obsessive misanthrope. John Calley, chairman of Sony Pictures and an old friend, spoke for many when he described Kubrick as a man true to an uncompromising vision who always “remained decent, with a family he loved, yet wise, fun, kind and not follow-the-leader.”
That such a life revolved around the creation of dark visions of human nature and striving may be counted as an irony. In the end, people who really care about movies always knew, as Steven Spielberg put it, that when you saw one of Kubrick’s movies, “you committed yourself to its being part of your life.” When the dust of its release settles, it is a virtual certainty that we will be able to see Eyes Wide Shut, in all its challenging richness and strangeness, as Kubrick’s haunting final masterpiece.
Time, July 5, 1999 | Vol. 154 No. 1, pp. 65-70