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Eyes Wide Shut

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Eyes Wide Shut

Starring: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Rated: R
RunTime: 159 Minutes
Release Date: July 1999
Genre: Drama


*Also starring: Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Vinessa Shaw, Thomas Gibson, Leelee Sobieski, Alan Cumming, Todd Field



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Human beings have roamed the earth for two million years. What we call civilization began about seven thousand years ago. During the past seven millennia, the world has witnessed every form of government and about as many patterns of culture as can be imagined. Some cultures value money above all, others religion. Most people have spent all of their time in rural areas while in the more developed areas the rustic pleasures exist only as a break from urban stress. Despite the variety of peoples, there is just one set of taboos that all civilizations have supported: their interdictions center on sex. While just a bare handful of cultures have condoned incest, all have proscribed sexual relations outside of marriage. Though this restriction is often honored in the breach, one truth is preeminent: a married person cannot have sexual relations with other than his or her spouse without threatening their marriage. Why this unusual importance on sexual fidelity? Interpretations abound. In his final film, "Eyes Wide Shut," one of America's foremost directors, Stanley Kubrick, investigates the significance of sex as both an obsession and a source of jealousy of the most consequential kind. The film, which was started in 1995 and completed a very short time before the director's death four years later, has been kept under heavy wraps, presumably to increase the public's curiosity. Virtually no details were made public until a critic from a London newspaper broke with a premature review which (though the essay all but called the film a masterwork) created considerable wrath among executives in the releasing studio.

Sexual obsession and jealousy are not new themes in literature, theater, and movies. You need only look back to the ancient Greek stage to find the motifs at work in plays like the Agamemnon of Aeschylus and the Medea of Euripides. What gives "Eyes Wide Shut" its particular distinction is only partly the story, but mainly its use of a married couple, both major actors, in the lead roles: Tom Cruise as Dr. William Harford, a successful practitioner deficient in the departments of personality and understanding; and Nicole Kidman as his stay-at-home wife, Alice, a woman who is presumably looking for a job but has a full-time career conjuring up particularly Freudian dreams and fantasies. Kubrick opens the film boldly on an image of Alice, her robe dropping from her shoulders to reveal a naked back: but when Kubrick almost immediately blacks out the scene, he is hinting at his motif. "Eyes Wide Shut" is about temptation and retreat; perpetual obsession and failed realization. The movie is a portrayal of sexual intrigue that brings to mind playwright Arthur Schnitzler's displays of libidinous yearnings among the rich and powerful in his own Austria of the past century. In fact it's no happenstance that Kubrick's movie is closely based on one of Schnitzler's lesser works of fiction, "Traumnovelle" (Dream Story). Schnitzler's narrative is given a dazzling physical re-creation before Kubrick's lens, the cryptic atmosphere jogged by Jocelyn Pook's aesthetically appealing sound track and a costume design by Marit Allen that in one extended scene effectively recreates the Hapsburg Empire in our own time.

To say that this movie is a version of Billy Wilder's 1955 comedy "The Seven Year Itch"--about the fantasies Tom Ewell enjoys of the sexpot (Marilyn Monroe) who movies in upstairs while his wife is vacationing--would be a ludicrous analogy, to be sure, grossly trivializing Kubrick's themes. And yet "Eyes Wide Shut" re-shapes the comic cleverness of "Itch" into an almost Greek tragic construct. Bill and Alice have been married for nine years and have a lovely seven- year-old daughter. They are financially secure and travel in New York's upper-middle class circles. A sexual restlessness materializes, given full vent at a party held by millionaire Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). While Bill receives the flirtatious attentions of two bimbos, Alice, who by now is tipsy, is aroused during a coquettish dance of her own with a suave Hungarian who attempts to seduce her. When the couple return home, relaxing by smoking pot, Alice becomes aggressive while debating her husband about the sexual differences between men and women, describing a near-affair she had with a sailor. As Bill imagines the liaison (shown in several black-and-white, dream-like images) his envy gets the better of him. He is led into a series of connections with love-hungry women, beginning with contact with the distressed Mary (Marie Richardson) who declares her love for Bill and an indifference toward with her fiance. Later allowing himself to be almost seduced by a hooker (Vinessa Shaw), he learns from a jazz pianist friend (Todd Field) of a location in which masked orgies take place. Renting a costume from the eccentric Milich (Rade Sherbedgia), he taxis to the mansion and is attracted to a woman who leads him on a tour of the house, in whose rooms costumed couples are bumping and thrusting (their gyrations partially hidden by digitally created figures recently introduced to avoid an NC-17 rating).

If you were ever curious about whether a doctor--who has seen scores, perhaps hundreds of naked bodies of patients-- can maintain his libido or whether he would suffer the fate of a chocolatier who is so entombed in his creation that he eschews the consumption of his own product, this film provides an answer. No way is Bill's professional exposure to the female form desensitizing. As he wanders about the mansion entranced and amazed by the orgiastic animations about him, and as he meanders about the streets of New York (exquisitely re-created in Pinewood Studios), his mojo remains on the same high peak enjoyed by Austin Powers in an obviously more lighthearted movie. Under the spell of his wife's revelations about a near-affair, he sees sex everywhere--his wife's carnal yearnings restricted to Freudian dreams while her husband's are furthered by dreamlike reality.

At times the film looks like a creation of Harold Pinter, so menacing is the orgy in which Bill soon finds himself out of his depths. At other times we could swear that "Eyes Wide Shut" is the creation of a Franz Kafka, Alice's nightmares and the guilt-ridden Bill's actual experiences creating a mysterious and alluring ambiance.

"Eyes Wide Shut" is not the masterpiece that some have expected it to come from the vivid imagination of the creator of such bold works as "Dr. Strangelove," "2001," "Full Metal Jacket," "The Shining" and "Clockwork Orange." Stanley Kubrick took his time, a meticulous man who has obviously planned each shot with impeccable attention. His visual style is manifest in every scene, in the way he conveys the murky menace of New York streets by night, the desperation of the opulent at a massive, costumed orgy that at one point turns into a trial that would have titillated Torquemada, the intimate scenes that take place between a man and wife who have become perhaps too comfortable with each other and are seeking new and dangerous games to play. With a classic performance by Nicole Kidman, whether on the dance floor teasing her unctuous partner or stretched out vulnerably on her bed overwhelmed by her imagination, "Eyes Wide Shut" is a fitting conclusion to Mr. Kubrick's monumental career as a director of challenging fare, inviting a variety of interpretations from his cineastes. Conversations, especially between Alice and Bill, are almost painfully deliberate, as though Kubrick were petitioning his audience to lean on each word as though concocted on Mount Sinai. Despite its length of better than two and one-half hours, there is not a wasted sliver of celluloid in this engaging--if not quite overpowering-- tale.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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