Eyes Wide Shut is being billed as more than a movie, more than even a Tom Cruise-and-Nicole Kidman movie: It’s a Stanley Kubrick movie, which means, if his rep holds, that it’s supposed to somehow intuit what’s going on in our innermost lives and divine a millennial mood we may not yet even be aware of. The film is poised to be an epochal pop-cultural event, an art blockbuster. And since it’s Kubrick’s last, the genius-visionary mystique machine has been turned on by the media full-blast. Eyes Wide Shut is going to be read or, more to the point, misread as some kind of valedictory. But Kubrick never intended for this film to be his last – he was, for example, famously caught up in preparations for a movie about artificial intelligence. Besides, for a director whose themes were as churningly repetitive as Kubrick’s, there can be no proper valedictory because the moment of serene repose never arrives.
It is this quality of personal obsession that makes Eyes Wide Shut such a hammerlock of an experience. It’s a powerful movie without always, or often, being a very good one; watching it is a bit like being inside the twistings and conniptions of a control freak who longs to lose control, only to pull back tighter than ever. The oracular power often attributed to Kubrick’s films from at least A Clockwork Orange on is keyed to the playing and replaying of a few themes and variations on paranoia and depravity. For all the vaunted bigness of his movies, they’re not very symphonic – there are too few notes for that.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Kubrick punctuates the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack with repeated earsplitting strikes of a single piano key whenever things get particularly deranged. The derangement starts early. Dr. William Harford (Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Kidman), segue from their swank Central Park West apartment to a pre-Christmas party at even swankier digs – an eerie aerie belonging to one of William’s wealthy patients (Sydney Pollack) that resembles something out of The Shining. The coruscated moldings and gleaming amber interiors are infernally luxurious; the Christmas-tree bulbs are like warning lights. Alice finds herself dancing with an aging Hungarian roué (Sky Dumont) who has a desiccated line of patter; he quotes Ovid to her and invites her to check out the sculpture garden with him. She demurs, waving her wedding ring as if it were a talisman. But the film’s vampiric tone has been set – we’re watching a movie about sex as the Other.
The tone is amplified when William, having been courted by two leggy models, is called upon to revive a nude woman who’s OD’d in his host’s private quarters. Her pristine body is photographed like carrion before the feast. At home afterward, Alice and William get stoned in their crimson-sheeted bed and the obligatory postcoital scene runs to jealousy: Alice accuses her doctor husband of party-time infidelity, he jokingly brings up the roué, and then she drops the bombshell: A reverie she had of being deeply smitten and willingly borne away forever from her husband and young daughter by a handsome naval officer she spied during the family’s Cape Cod summer vacation. William listens to her rapt monologue with eyes wide open – Kidman gives a harrowing rendition – and the screen-filling close-up of him that Kubrick bestows is a doozy: This naïf looks positively poleaxed.
The Harfords, it would seem, are not the sort of couple who get turned on by one another’s erotic indiscretions. That would make for a different movie. This one – written by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael and closely patterned on the 1926 Arthur Schnitzler Freudian fantasia novella Dream Story – is about the damning effect of carnal urges. William may be the shining prince of the Upper West Side who flashes his medical I.D. card as if it were a sheriff’s badge; he may have women slavering all over him. No matter. Alice offers up her reverie and William looks into the chasm, where he imagines Alice and the officer locked in lust. (The couplings he fantasizes are rendered in a radioactive-looking black-and-white.) He moves into a night world that encompasses both the ratty Village apartment of a sweet-souled hooker (Vinessa Shaw) and, later, an elaborate masked ball in a forbidding upstate mansion: It’s erotics high and low, and Kubrick seems to be making the tired old point that upper-class sex is more decadent than the lower varieties.
Coming a little more than halfway through this two-and-a-half-hour movie, the masque is the film’s centerpiece, and it’s around this time that things start to get really, if unintentionally, silly. The way Kubrick stages the scene, it’s like the Vanderbilt mansion meets Hef’s place. People in gargoyle masks stride through echoey amphitheaters in caped costumes and monk duds, chanting and acting all incantatory while masked women mince about buck-naked and lead men away to some unspecified delectation. William glides goggle-eyed through the rutting tableaux, and who can blame him? (A few digitized figures were inserted into the scene to block the view and secure the film’s R rating.) It’s quite possible that Kubrick never saw a lot of the tony blue-movie schlock that this sequence conjures up, but he arrives at the same place anyway. Who would have believed Stanley Kubrick as a deluxe Radley Metzger?
Kubrick is perhaps the least sensual of all the major directors, and so, when it was announced, however sketchily, that he would be making a movie about carnal knowledge, skepticism yielded to curiosity: Maybe he could do for humping what he once did for nuclear proliferation and space travel? But Kubrick can’t give us the pleasures of the illicit in Eyes Wide Shut, only the terrors; and without those pleasures, what is there for the good doctor to be drawn into or renounce? (In the movie’s archetypal scene, William on a house call is lured by an amorous patient while a corpse rests in full view.) For all its supersophisticated stylistics, the film basically issues from a zone of bourgeois complacency. The message is: Play around, get in trouble.
But it goes deeper than that. Alice’s indiscretions are reveries; William’s are bona fide. The film is a male fantasy of how women’s imagined urges can destroy you just as if they were real. (“No dream is just a dream,” William says at the end.) Kubrick’s view of females is double-edged: With their sexual capacity, their instinct for infidelity, their aphrodisia, they are the annihilators of male contentment. And yet there are women in Eyes Wide Shut, like that sweet-souled prostitute, who are a balm; at the masked ball, an enigmatic siren offers herself up to save William’s life, sacrificing herself to redeem his transgressions. So men are a party to annihilation, too. Eyes Wide Shut just might be the most elaborate male mea culpa ever committed to film.
Still, none of the personal destructions on view resonate, because the movie seems to be populated by the soulless. The dead – the corpses and cadavers – are of a piece with the undead. The casting of Cruise and Kidman, movie stars who give off a chilly fortitude, is all too perfect. Kubrick brings out the alabaster whiteness in their skin; he bathes them in blue light. Their acting, except for Kidman’s monologue and a few racked moments from Cruise, is overdeliberate; they seem not so much directed as commandeered.
Kubrick wasn’t able to relinquish his customary iron grip over his material and move into more perilous and mellifluous realms of desire. William’s dreamlike passage has the force of an obsession, but it’s Kubrick’s, not William’s. Kubrick’s passion, finally, is not for letting go but for holding on. It’s an understandable response – a human response, especially as one gets older – and so there is a poignancy to it. But the only overwhelming emotion I felt from Eyes Wide Shut had nothing to do with the movie, really. What I experienced was a sadness that, with this last film of Kubrick’s, there will be no others, and a vision, which certainly had its triumphs, has been taken away.