movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 1999 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.)

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Eyes Wide Shut
Rarely has a motion picture inspired such a torrent of specious rumors as Eyes Wide Shut. Director Stanley Kubrick's modus operandi required that a cloak of secrecy envelope the movie throughout its production. But even before cameras started rolling, rumors began to circulate. Sex scenes with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would be explicit! Not true. The movie would feature necrophilia! Not true. Such an influx of rumors might be expected for a Star Wars sequel, but this movie features no space ships or laser battles.

It's refreshing to see such attention lavished on the work of one of America's most highly-respected directors of serious dramas. Much of the attention may have been borne by the intimations of explicit sex that surrounded the film and the involvement of such a high-profile real-life couple as Cruise and Kidman; however, it's difficult to overestimate the influence of Kubrick. His 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange have inspired cult-like devotion, and his Dr. Strangelove is nothing less than one of the greatest comedies ever made. (All three movies rank well in the AFI's top 100 list.) Kubrick's death--only four days after the film shoot wrapped up--added to the mystery and aura surrounding Eyes Wide Shut.

But now the wait is over and we can experience the movie firsthand. And what an experience it is! Eyes Wide Shut is a marvelously complex and thoughtful examination of love, marriage, complacency, wealth, power, desire, and sex. Despite a running time of over two and one-half hours, Eyes Wide Shut is one of the tightest movies of Kubrick's career. Kubrick doesn't give us any throwaway scenes. Some scenes begin like throwaways, such as a simple trip into a hotel lobby to talk to a desk clerk, but then unexpected things happen. Supporting characters suddenly grapple with the lead characters for attention. Alan Cumming, as the aforementioned desk clerk, only has a few lines of dialogue, but Kubrick's camera fixes on Cumming's face as his eyes seductively size up Cruise. And when Cruise drops by a costume shop after hours, Rade Sherbedgia as the shop owner completely steals the scene away from Cruise--that is, until Leelee Sobieski as Sherbedgia's daughter shows up, wearing just her bra and panties. She doesn't speak a single word, except for what she whispers mischievously in Cruise's ear, and she steals the scene from both Cruise and Sherbedgia. (You might remember Sherbediga from Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain and Sobieski from James Ivory's A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries.)

The supporting characters (including Sydney Pollack as an absurdly-rich businessman and Todd Field as a medical-student-turned-jazz-pianist) acquire much of the burden for carrying the movie because Eyes Wide Shut unfolds like an odyssey. The movie opens up by establishing potential conflict between Dr. William Harford (Cruise) and his wife Alice (Kidman): they attend an upper-crust party and both find themselves in situations where they are tempted by infidelity. A suave Hungarian aristocrat meets Alice on the dance floor. While they dance and their eyes meet, he urges her to follow him upstairs. Meanwhile, two models hang on Bill's arms as he walks through the party. Their seductive, come-hither expressions and body language promise him anything he wants. Both Bill and Alice resist these temptations. However, several days later, back in the security of their Central Park West apartment, they begin to talk about the evening.

"You've never been jealous about me, have you?" says Alice.

"I know you would never be untrue to me," says Bill.

"You're very sure of yourself."

"No, I'm sure of you."

Thanks to a few drags on a reefer, Alice talks freely. To make her husband question his faith in her, she talks about an infatuation she had with a soldier they encountered while on vacation. She tells Bill that she fantasized about making love to the soldier. When she saw him for the first time, her knees became weak, and when she discovered he had checked out of the hotel, she was devastated.

Her words have a visible effect on Bill. He sits on the bed in stunned silence--thus the movie's title: Bill Harford has kept his eyes wide open to how he and his wife might be affected by other people they meet, but he hasn't really seen everything. His cocksure attitude has, in effect, equipped him with blinders. As a result, the possibility of his wife being untrue shakes him to his core. But then the telephone rings and he's called away by a patient--and thus begins Bill's odyssey through the city. During the taxi ride, his mind envisions Alice and the soldier making love: the soldier kisses her neck while she removes her panties. He can't shake the visions.

This odyssey involves the mourning daughter of Bill's deceased patient; a group of partying young men (fresh out of a strip show) who encounter Bill on the street and assume he's gay; a hooker with a pleasant smile who picks up Bill on the street; a man Bill went to medical school with who now works as a jazz pianist in a Greenwich Village bar; a secret party where you must know the password in order to gain admittance; a trip to a costume shop for a mask and a hooded cape; and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Thoughts of Alice and the soldier fuel Bill's trip through the night. All of his repressed sexual desires come rushing to the surface.

With everything bathed in a yellowish glow, as if embers from a nearby fireplace were glowing bright, Eyes Wide Shut moves forward like a drug-induced dream. Everything revolves around sex, or at least so in the mind of William Harford. As Bill struggles with his own sexual desires, Kubrick makes us Bill's constant companion. The camera rarely leaves his side. In the movie's most notorious sequence, the camera follows Bill into a ritualistic orgy--where a variety of couplings take place between masked participants in an ornate mansion.

Several critics, most notably Roger Ebert, have complained about the digitally-added human figures which obscure the sexual couplings in the orgy scene. For the record, I thought these sequences were handled well. Certainly, the explicitness of these couplings has little to do with the film's quality. And because the film's producer and Kubrick had talked about altering the sequence to secure an R rating, there is little room for complaints. Europeans might be able to see the orgy sequence in all its glory, but the ultimate difference is negligible--and to a certain extent, irrelevant.

Eyes Wide Shut isn't about explicit sex. It's about complacency and repression. It's about the mantle of comfort and security that family life provides and how that mantle can become encrusted with complacent attitudes. It's about repressed sexual desires that live within us. It's about revealing those desires and the devastating effects they can have.

Eyes Wide Shut (inspired by the novel Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler) plays out at a leisurely pace. In most Hollywood productions, characters hurry through dialogue as if they doubt the ability of drama to hold an audience; in Eyes Wide Shut, however, Kubrick allows scenes to build slowly. Dialogue sequences drift and sway. They start as one thing, and then they become something else entirely. Because this movie is rhythmically so different from usual Hollywood productions, I'm guessing it will totally perplex many moviegoers. But for those people willing to be patient and let the movie weave its hypnotic-like spell, the effect can be intoxicating. I only fault the movie for the clumsy plot developments during the orgy sequence. These developments don't make one whit of sense. (These plot machinations rely upon one participant being easily recognized by two others: How? I don't buy it.) As a result, the movie begins to resemble a mannered, expressionistic European soft-core pornographic production.

Outside of this one sequence, Eyes Wide Shut is an amazingly rich tapestry that serves as a fitting coda to Kubrick's career. After the hopeless desperation of Paths of Glory, after the sterile beauty of 2001, after the brutality of A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick gives us a drama where the main characters can improve their lives by learning about love and commitment. Eyes Wide Shut is the work of a master. The world has lost one its finest filmmakers.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]