Eyes Wide Shut, the final motion picture from the late, great Stanley Kubrick, is easily the most anticipated adult film of the year. It's The Phantom Menace for grown-ups. Kubrick made only 13 features in his 46-year career, but his death in March and the pre-release buzz led to hype about this being the sexiest picture ever.
Unfortunately, it is not even close. This is, after all, a Stanley Kubrick picture, and, therefore, more clinical than sensual in its analysis of our sexual lives. It is, as his films usually are, dense, complex, and challenging. It is also, sad to say, ponderous, often inscrutable, and ultimately not much fun.
Set in contemporary Manhattan, the film focuses on the relationship between Dr. William Harford (Tom Cruise) and wife Alice (Nicole Kidman). From all appearances, the Harfords are a decent, loving couple, with one daughter, Helena (Madison Eginton), and a conventional, though ritzy, lifestyle. The film is meant to be seen as a cautionary tale on the themes of fidelity, temptation and desire.
In the beginning, relations between William and his wife seem nearly ideal. They attend a party at the home of a friend, Victor (played with worldly panache by Sydney Pollack), drink a little, flirt a little, go home, and make love. (William has to do a little doctoring, too, when Victor's junkie girlfriend reacts badly to her speedball.) However, the next evening after they smoke a little pot to loosen up for another lovemaking session, Alice becomes angry and aggressive, and launches into a long monologue about a powerful sexual fantasy involving a naval officer.
This extended monologue which the actress delivers during a deluge of complex emotion ranging from disdain to revulsion is Kidman's finest moment in an otherwise unremarkable, and, at times, irritating performance. (She makes a very silly drunk.) From this point on, the film leaves the waking, so-called "real" world and enters a world that looks real but may or may not be a dream. (The movie was inspired by a short fiction by Arthur Schnitzler, who was a contemporary of Freud.)
If this sounds confusing, it is, and intentionally so. The world around William is no longer the same. Everywhere he goes, he is tempted. And why not give in?, he asks himself, his head filled with visions of his wife in bed with her handsome naval officer.
Images from this clumsily executed vision shot in music-video style black-and-white are the most amateurish in Kubrick's career. Throughout, the filmmaking seems flat and unimaginative. The editing, especially, appears ham-handed, always jumping the gun and cutting away impatiently, prematurely. Overall, the film qualifies as one of the least impressive efforts by a great director in recent memory.
The movie's pivotal sequence may be its most embarrassing. William learns of a secret society whose members meet in black ties, hooded capes, and masks to live out their deepest sexual fantasies. The good doctor attends and is found out, but manages to get away. He has, however, had an opportunity to look into a hellish pit of promiscuity and vice. The audience, though, may feel more like laughing at these absurdly contrived sexual sideshows. By and large, they just look awkward and comical.
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If there had been anything like a logical emotional progression in Cruise's performance, the film might have accumulated some dramatic momentum and suspense, but, alas, our forever boyish star just seems baffled.
Kubrick decides in the final scene that he needs to wrap everything up in a neat package. His mouthpiece is Alice, who tells her husband that maybe all they've been going through is just a dream. But as we all know, a dream is never just a dream. And maybe they should feel grateful that they have been able to survive the temptations, to be together after all their adventures. The audience, of course, wonders: What temptations? What adventures? From where we sit, their only challenge was a couple of mildly bad dreams. No real danger threatened them.
At least in subject matter, Eyes Wide Shut deals more with the problems of normal life than perhaps any movie Kubrick has ever made. In this sense, it is his most personal, mature work. Unfortunately, what it reveals is that of all the subjects he might have chosen, this was the one about which he was least familiar. As a result, Eyes Wide Shut comes off as an attempt by the director, near the end of his life, to come to terms not with the future, or outer space, or creation, or war, but something so small and vital as the emotional life of a couple. Perhaps it was his attempt to return to the real world of feelings and emotions.
This makes his failure here and his death all the more poignant. As a filmmaker, he was still young. The saddest fact is that we will never know if, indeed, this film signaled a change of direction, or if he would in subsequent films have blasted off again into other worlds. And for that we can never feel grateful.