“Eyes Wide Shut”

With its pro-monogamy moralizing, Kubrick's supposedly steamy last film is ultimately anti-erotic -- nothing more than an art-house version of an army training film.

Topics: Tom Cruise, Sex, Love and Sex, Movies,

The eulogies for Stanley Kubrick,
who died of a heart attack on March 7, the
day after he delivered the final cut of his final film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” are
full of tributes from those who worked with him, contradicting his public
image as a severe and withdrawn recluse. But watching his movies you
have to deal with what’s on the screen, and from “2001: A Space Odyssey”
(1968) on, the dominant mood of every Kubrick film was that of cold
technical proficiency. Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist, reportedly able
to detect flaws in his lighting plan just by walking on a set, demanding take
after take of the most mundane shots. In a New York Times Magazine
remembrance, Adam Baldwin, who appeared in “Full Metal Jacket,” said
that after several takes Kubrick would show his actors a video playback and
say, “Don’t stand there. Don’t go that far into the frame. See, you’re out of
focus here.”

That obsessive precision, combined with the misanthropy Kubrick’s films
expressed, worked to make the actors nearly irrelevant. Throughout “Eyes
Wide Shut” the actors are held immobile in static close-ups or positioned
against cavernous sets that appear ready to swallow them up. Perhaps it
would have been a relief for the director if they had been swallowed
up; then there would have been nothing to interfere with the presentation
of his sets, the depth of focus, the exactitude of every overlit shot.

“Eyes Wide Shut,” “inspired” by Arthur Schnitzler’s
“Traumnovelle,” is a sexual melodrama done in an imperial style. Imagine a Pinter play directed
by Napoleon. Pinter would kill for the pauses in this movie. Even when the
characters are talking, the dialogue comes out as if it were being uttered in
an echo chamber. In that Times Magazine article, Matthew Modine said, “He
couldn’t understand why anybody would want to go anyplace. Why his
children would want to go to university,” and reported that Kubrick said,
“You don’t have to go away to find something. Everything can be brought to
you.”

And that’s how Kubrick worked, taking years to complete projects, keeping
them veiled in secrecy, not leaving England since he moved there in the
’60s. Kubrick created a laboratory from which he issued movies that appear
untouched by human hands. Except for a few of the supporting
performances, nothing in “Eyes Wide Shut,” which is set in Manhattan,
feels like it has a connection to any recognizable notion of urban life or
human behavior. The movie’s Manhattan (shot, except for a few
second-unit establishing shots, on sets in London) is the least populated
you’ll ever see. That sealed-off feeling might have had some charge if we
had the sense that we’d entered a king director’s fevered fantasy life.

But nothing in “Eyes Wide Shut” betrays that Kubrick had wanted for 30
years to make a film of Schnitzler’s novella. It doesn’t have the visionary
craziness that can sometimes energize even mucked-up dream projects.
And its subject — a married couple whose jealousy of each other’s sexual
fantasies spurs them to pursue those fantasies — is wildly inappropriate for
the director.

To borrow an old Robin Williams line, Stanley Kubrick on sex is like
Gandhi on catering. Kubrick’s style and sensibility were particularly unsuited to sensuality. The
filmmaker capable of the erotic tenderness of the credit sequence of “Lolita”
(where we see a man’s hands delicately painting a young girl’s toenails)
was long ago subsumed by the technician. (You sense the ghost of that
tenderness in the close-ups of Leelee Sobieski as a teenage hooker. What a
Lolita she would have made.)

Kubrick and his screenwriter, Frederic Raphael have transferred Schnitzler’s
well-heeled bourgeois couple to present-day New York, where they live in a
Central Park West apartment. The central character (here called Bill Harford
and played by Cruise) is still a doctor, though his wife (named Alice and
played by Nicole Kidman) is now a former art gallery manager. The circles
they move in are those of wealthy Manhattanites. The Christmas party that
opens the movie is Kubrick’s version of the slightly sinister ball the couple
have just attended when the Schnitzler opens. Schnitzler is deliberately
vague about the threat his couple feels at the ball; as the novella goes on that threat becomes the couples’ own fear about the temptation
they feel to betray their vows of fidelity. Kubrick bypasses erotic temptation
to go straight for a moralistic view of bourgeois decadence. Cruise is called to
attend to a young woman who’s OD’d during sex while Kidman is
downstairs dancing with some silver-haired Lothario who acts like the lead
in a community theater production of “Dracula.” The naked body of the girl
Cruise cares for is presented for our delectation, as if the sight of a naked
woman zonked on a speedball holds some erotic allure.

Schnitzler’s “Traumnovelle” never denies the danger that’s part of the
allure of sex. The melodramatic conventions that dominate the story after
the doctor crashes a mysterious orgy and (it’s inferred) escapes with his life
are Schnitzler’s metaphor for the possibility that giving in to temptation
will destroy you. But Schnitzler’s prose was that of a dedicated sensualist
and voyeur. He never denies the appeal of giving in to temptation, and the
lushness of the writing makes you want to slow down and savor it even as
it carries you through the story: “Fridolin’s eyes roved hungrily from
sensuous to slender figures, and from budding figures to figures in glorious
full bloom; — and the fact that each of these naked beauties still remained a
mystery, and that from behind the masks large eyes as unfathomable as
riddles sparkled out at him, transformed his indescribably strong urge to
watch with an almost intolerable torment of desire.”

Kubrick is determinedly anti-erotic. “Eyes Wide Shut” follows the plot of
“Traumnovelle” surprisingly closely. But it completely reverses Schnitzler’s
meanings. His couple comes to the realization that, even if it isn’t acted
upon, erotic temptation can never be banished from their lives. Finally, they
are united by their acceptance of the contingencies of fidelity. Kubrick, the
anti-sensualist and misanthropic moralist, relentlessly equates extramarital
sex with death. After Kidman confesses to an infatuation with a young man
she glimpsed a year earlier on their vacation, Cruise, his ego bruised by the
confession, goes out determined to pay her back by indulging his own
fantasies. He picks up a hooker (Vanessa Shaw, whose playful warmth is the
only truly erotic thing — and just about the only human thing — in the
movie) but stops short of sleeping with her. The later revelation that she’s
HIV-positive makes you feel you’ve stepped into the art-house version of
an army training film.

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Kubrick goes whole hog when he gets to his big orgy sequence. (As reported,
the American version of this sequence has had digital figures introduced during a
65-second shot in order to obscure the copulating bodies that caused the MPAA ratings board
to threaten the film with an NC-17. Apparently, it wasn’t the nudity that bugged the board —
it was the movement of the couples. I’m perfectly willing to believe that the MPAA ratings
board are the only people left in America who don’t move when they fuck, but do they have to ruin
the fun for the rest of us?) Schnitzler’s erotic masquerade has become a Gregorian
black mass. There are lots of naked bodies on display, but the emphasis is on the malevolent masked and
hooded figures watching Cruise. On the soundtrack a piece by composer
Gyvrgy Legeti hammers its way into your skull, a plunking one-note monotony that,
depending on whether the pianist is hitting low notes or high ones, feels alternately like a migraine
and an ice-cream headache. And Cruise has apparently been directed not to
show any erotic excitement at the couplings going on around him. (I don’t
know of any man who could parade through roomsful of women having sex
and not wind up walking like Groucho.) Like Fellini, Kubrick appears to have become a collector of
grotesques, but one without Fellini’s self-indulgent excess. The whole effect
is rather like that of a castrated Sade, or a grandiose, po-faced version of
those pornos that come along every few years and try to class things up by
placing the performers in masks and feathers.

As for the much-vaunted hot sex between Tom and Nicole,
there is none. If
you’ve seen the trailer of them embracing nude before a mirror, you’ve
seen the extent of their frolics here. The gratuitous shots of Kidman’s
derrière, shots that would seem unself-conscious coming from a sensualist
like Philip Kaufman or an honest roue like Roger Vadim, have an
embarrassed quality. Kubrick is like a guy who claims he buys Playboy for
the articles peeking guiltily at the centerfold. He’s too much the artiste to
cop to succumbing to the pleasures of the flesh. The film’s merciless,
unforgiving light drains the actors’ flesh of any warmth. The look of the
movie is both harsh and fuzzy (Kubrick acted as his own director of
photography), as if dust motes were floating before the camera.

You don’t have to like Tom Cruise or Nicole Kidman to feel sorry for the
way they are used here. Their mistreatment has less to do with Kubrick
exploiting the peek-a-boo potential of getting a look at a famous couple’s sex
life (that’s too tabloid for his taste) than with Kubrick’s seeming lack of interest
in directing actors. (Why else would he permit the kind of overacting — like
Patrick Magee’s in “A Clockwork Orange” and Jack Nicholson’s in “The
Shining” — that has characterized his films for the last 30 years? Perhaps
Sydney Pollack’s own experience as a director
is what allows him to give the modulated performance he does as Cruise’s business colleague.) Kidman
has at least gained some cachet from her work with Gus Van Sant, Jane
Campion and, on stage, David Hare. But it’s not hard to see why two movie
stars would jump at the chance to work with Stanley Kubrick and receive
the regard as serious actors that the association would confer on them.
There are a few scenes near the beginning (Cruise asking Kidman where
he’s left his wallet or discreetly inquiring the name of their baby sitter) when
the pair show the unforced rapport of married life. And Kidman has one
startling moment: looking in the mirror as Cruise nuzzles her and
regarding herself with an autoerotic narcissism.

But Cruise and Kidman have to play emotional extremes here without any
guidance from Kubrick, and so they come off as both bland and shrill. I felt
particularly bad for Cruise, who has seemed to be developing some skill in
his last movies. Turning himself into an action figure in “Mission:
Impossible,” he was fun to watch, and he worked his tail off in “Jerry
Maguire”; you got the sense he was trying to honor the script by going
beyond his patented movie-star charm, trying to come up with more depth
and warmth than he ever showed before. Whatever his failings, he’s not
lazy. He’s working hard here, too, but not only has Kubrick not shaped the
performance, he and Kidman are stuck with banal material. Their
arguments about the differing sexual natures of men and women feel
recycled from the feminist arguments of the early ’70s (you know, the ones
about how lust, even unacted-upon lust, was a symbol of male brutishness).
The movie’s whole view of the temptations of extramarital sex — flirting at
fancy parties, orgies taking place under the secret veneer of the good life —
are an anachronism. Even the AIDS-era fears of the consequences of sex feel
like something 10 years out of date.

It’s inevitable that any mainstream movie that attempts to deal
with sex, especially one with big stars, gets touted as unprecedented. Part of
that hoopla is sheer hype and part of it the childishness of how sex is still
dealt with in American movies. The most shocking thing about “Eyes Wide
Shut” is that despite the nudity and the orgies and the titillation of hearing
Tom and Nicole talking about “fucking,” its view of sex is utterly
conventional. Kubrick’s much-anticipated final film boils down to the most elaborate
monogamy lecture ever.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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