by J. Hoberman
The best thing about Eyes Wide Shut may be its title, but anyone planning to see Stanley Kubrick’s long-awaited, posthumously released swan song is advised to go with their eyes open. Completed by Warner Bros. after the director’s death last March (and shamelessly proclaimed a “brilliant,” “haunting” “masterpiece” in the advance cover story provided by the studio’s corporate sibling, Time), this two hour and 39 minute gloss on Arthur Schnitzler’s fantasmagoric novella feels like a rough draft at best.
At worst, Eyes Wide Shut is ponderously (up)dated—as though Kubrick had finally gotten around to responding to Michelangelo Antonioni’s druggy Blow-Up—if not weirdly anachronistic. (It’s difficult to make a movie about a city you last set foot in 35 years ago.) Shot in London, Eyes Wide Shut opens in a fabulous Upper West Side apartment filled with florid paintings, Alice (Nicole Kidman) stripping down to dress up—and not for the last time. She and her doctor husband Bill (Tom Cruise) have been invited to the splendiferous Christmas bash hosted by a wealthy sleazebag of mystery (Sydney Pollack).
Lit like Bloomie’s window and shot as though for The Shining, the party is charged with telegraphed sophistication and rich with significant meetings. Bill encounters an old med-school buddy playing piano; Alice is swept away by a predatory Hungarian for a foxtrot so torrid they’re practically horizontal. Just as Bill is being waltzed off to pleasures unknown by a pair of flirtatious models, he is summoned, at the host’s behest, to revive a very naked lovely who has inconveniently OD’d in the master bathroom. Eyes Wide Shut, as you may know, is about sex—albeit mainly in the head.
In one of the movie’s two bravura scenes, Bill and Alice smoke weed and rehash their confusing Christmas party encounters. Irritated (or is it stimulated?) by Bill’s smug denials, Alice launches into an impassioned riff on marriage, jealousy, and the alleged difference between the genders. Bill remains clueless: “Relax, Alice, this pot is making you aggressive.” The scene demonstrates why Kubrick wanted a real-life couple—Cruise’s evident discomfort is no less crucial than Kidman’s ecstatic exhibitionism. The actress is not only a more assured performer than her husband but an incomparably greater showboat, almost absurdly comfortable acting without clothes. (A year spent shooting and reshooting this material must have propelled her into The Blue Room.)
The all-purpose conjugal argument, somewhat skewed by Kidman’s stoned rantings and distracting dishabille, segues into a confession that she has only just finished making when the telephone rings. Summoned to his professional duties, the most boyish, least likely, doctor in New York City embarks on a stumbling sexual Cook’s tour. Imagining his wife’s imagined infidelity all the while, he is successively propositioned by a dead patient’s neurotic daughter, gay-baited by six drunken teenagers, picked up by an exceedingly pretty hooker, made privy to a sordid instance of pedophilia, and ultimately transported to a masquerade orgy at a baronial estate somewhere in the richest, most Republican districts of Long Island.
The latter is the movie’s set piece but, for all the bare breasts and velvet capes, black mass paraphernalia and strenuously implied in-and-out, it’s less carnal cornucopia than a triumph of theatrical fustiness that effectively liquidates whatever mad oneiric momentum the movie has built up over the past hour. Hardly the sexual heart of darkness, this decorous gavotte is more studied than a fashion shoot and rather less explicit. The final shock: Two men dancing…together!
The story of a guy who crashes out of his bourgeois existence into a nocturnal world of sexual gangsters and femmes fatales, Eyes Wide Shut is a kind of primal noir. The script, which Kubrick wrote with novelist Frederic Rafael, is, for much of its length, surprisingly faithful to the 1926 Schnitzler original—a fluid exploration of the marital magnetic field that, successfully blurring the boundaries of the real, keeps telling the same story again and again, charging it each time with additional psychosexual material. (Physician heal thyself: Schnitzler himself was a medical doctor and, like Kubrick, a doctor’s son.)
While Bill’s out exploring, Alice has been home in bed, dreaming. Far more cogent (and disturbingly erotic) than the vaunted orgy, Kidman’s agonized recounting of her nocturnal adventure makes the movie’s most compelling scene. Events staged are trumped by those imagined. Eyes Wide Shut is its own critique—no wonder Kubrick spent so many years pondering this project and so much time in production.
No small attention has been given to the digital figures that Warner Bros. introduced into Kubrick’s footage, strategically positioned to block the action during the orgy scene. (The effect is not unlike the inscribed audience in Mystery Science Theater 3000.) Supposedly added to secure the movie’s R rating, these computer-generated fig leaves may conceal something else.
Days after Kubrick’s death, Warners’ then co-chairman Terry Semel told The New York Times that Eyes Wide Shut was “totally finished.” Save for “a couple of color corrections” and some unspecified “technical things,” Kubrick had made “his final cut.” From a semantic point of view, this last statement is undeniable—the director had made his last cut, at least on this earth. But Eyes Wide Shut may be scarcely more Kubrick’s film than Juneteenth is Ralph Ellison’s novel. Whether or not one believes the rumors that the Eyes Wide Shut release version was supervised by Steven Spielberg or Sydney Pollack or even Tom Cruise, the ponderous Temple of Doom orgy, crassly matched location inserts, overreliance on cross-cutting, and atrocious mixing (most obvious in the orgy’s dreadful dubbing and oscillating hubbub level) all suggest the movie was quite far from completion when its notoriously perfectionist author passed away.
Eyes Wide Shut had more than a few problems for Kubrick to solve. Out of his depth playing out of his depth, Cruise is as blatantly miscast as his character is incoherent. (The role of this self-deluded society doc might have made more sense if Bill were unhappily Jewish, as Rafael wanted, or a closeted gay, as Kubrick sometimes hints.) The ridiculous orgy and the botched sense of place would have been difficult to repair, and I don’t think there was any way to reconcile the cinematography’s would-be grainy immediacy with the fastidious studio lighting and lavish New York street set. But although the sarcastic use of pop chestnuts like “Strangers in the Night” and “When I Fall in Love” sounds like Kubrick, it’s difficult to find a precedent in his oeuvre for the embarrassingly insipid score.
Notwithstanding the misguided attempt in the movie’s final half hour to rationalize Schnitzler’s evocative material with a heavy-handed and ultimately nonsensical plot device, I’m not even convinced that this “haunting final masterpiece” has the tone that Kubrick intended. It requires but the barest familiarity with Lolita or Dr. Strangelove to see how Eyes Wide Shut might have been cut by 45 minutes and played for East European black comedy. (The movie is rife enough with broad performances—ranging from Sky Dumont’s hokey Hungarian to the fey camping of Alan Cumming’s desk clerk.)
There may be a scandal behind Eyes Wide Shut—which, even in this forlorn state, has enough stuff to suggest a Kubrick film—but it has nothing to do with explicit sex. Someday some dogged cine-archaeologist will get to the bottom of this corporate restoration and, figuring out just who did what to whom, sort the potential film from the apparent one. For most people, though, a single viewing will be more than enough.
Village Voice, July 20, 1999