October 01, 2015

Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut may be Stanley Kubrick’s most underrated movie. There are plenty of people who either love or hate The Shining, Barry Lyndon, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange. But Eyes Wide Shut has been damned with half-hearted praise. Critics pegged it as a good, not great, film, perhaps not wanting to overstate their case in the wake of Kubrick's death, just after he'd previewed the final cut. (Which he likely would have tinkered with even more, had he lived.) Eyes Wide Shut has always been overshadowed by the real-life things happening around it: Kubrick's passing, the film's supposedly lurid subject matter, the on-screen pairing of then husband-and-wife superstars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, playing a husband and wife with sexual problems. Surely all of this mire tainted people’s minds before they even saw the film. And what's more, Eyes Wide Shut is the kind of movie people talk about but never bother to see, having written it off as a dirty movie. But despite the movie's problems, which may be deeper than we think, it is a mesmerizing experience, one that held my interest for the whole two-and-a-half running time (a rare feat). 

The movie is set in New York at Christmastime, and it opens with Bill Harford, a prosperous Manhattan doctor, and his wife Alice, getting dressed for a party: the kind of fancy black tie event that offers a lot of schmoozing opportunities, the kind of thing Bill apparently loves (one of the perks of his profession, he assures Alice) but Alice dreads. Soon after they arrive, Alice adroitly downs a glass of champagne when Bill isn’t looking, and while he’s distracted by rich clients and hot models, she flirts with a Hungarian silver fox who wants to take her upstairs and ravish her. Alice even considers the prospect momentarily, letting it linger in the warm embrace of the champagne. We sense in that moment the tension inside Alice: she wants to be faithful to her husband even as he's annoying her and, even worse, flirting with other women. But then again, she's a woman with desires of her own, and those embers are still warm.

Kubrick channels James Joyce's lovely, pensive "The Dead", the story about a professor named Gabriel Conroy who is shocked to discover that his wife had a romance before him, one that she's never revealed. When Bill and Alice are talking in their bedroom, Alice reveals the contents of her dreamin which she's having multiple sexual partnersand Bill, although he himself has done plenty of flirting with other women—is undone. What's more, Alice had a temptation several years ago, one that she almost acted on. Of course it's understandably shocking to discover your wife has had desires for other men, but it's also ridiculous to think women are somehow incapable of having such desires, and even more ridiculous that men can excuse their own wrong-doing, but be completely undone by their wives'. Bill leaves the apartment ostensibly to make a house call, and eventually descends into a night of debauchery.

The great joke of Eyes Wide Shut is that Bill never actually does anything, even though his evening includes a visit to a prostitute (played by Vinessa Shaw) and later to a mansion on the outskirts of the city where some secret society of rich people has gathered for an elaborate orgy. They’re all adorned in black cloaks and Venetian masks to hide their true identities as they enact weird Pagan-esque rituals and then get down to business. Kubrick presents this prolonged scene as horrific, with throbbing, drawn out music and those costumes amping up a sense of yuppie grotesquerie, the sleazy feeling that rich people, people who run things, are enabled to do anything they want with impunity. 

Tom Cruise is marvelously cast as the designated watcher, much like the passive narrator of The Great Gatsby. Cruise’s good looks make people want to defile him—and he gives them plenty of opportunities—but he’s never willing to go all the way. This proves to be his salvation in Kubrick's puritanical world, because the prostitute he almost sleeps with is later diagnosed with HIV, and one of the girls at the witchy orgy overdoses, shrouding the entire proceedings in grisly darkness, and turning the film into a murder mystery, briefly.

It's the complexity of Bill's character that makes him so fascinating. He has a conscience, and he has temptations, and we get to watch those two impulses wage war against each other. Cruise, who so many have rebuked as a bad actor and nothing more than a pop Hollywood star, works for this movie. He's enough of a blank slate for us to project our own emotions onto him, but he also tries very hard to give Bill Harford depth, and I think his trying, which so rarely profits him, pays off here.

If Eyes Wide Shut makes any false moves, it's in the gradual de-emphasizing of Alice as a major character. For a good long while, they are equals, then it becomes Bill's movie, then, at the very end, the two are on the same level again. Nicole Kidman breathes real passion and pathos into Alice. When Kidman’s on screen, there’s nothing else you’d rather look at. Kubrick perhaps takes this too literally at times, letting the camera gaze on her nude body for no apparent reason other than the prospect of looking at Nicole Kidman. It's the most hypocritical thing about this movie, which really feels quite Victorian in its sexual politics.

But despite its flaws, Eyes Wide Shut is a show-stopping final note from Stanley Kubrick, and one that deserves a re-appraisal. With Sydney Pollack, Todd Field, Marie Richardson, Vinessa Shaw, and Alan Cumming. Written by Kubrick and Frederick Raphael, loosely adapted from Arthur Schnitzler's short novel Traumnovelle.

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