Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

D: Stanley Kubrick
S: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack

After a society party in modern day New York, doctor Tom Cruise is shocked when wife Nicole Kidman reveals that she once briefly entertained thoughts of infidelity. The disclosure sends him into a delirium in which a series of encounters with denizens of the city become a surreal journey through his internal moral universe. Based on the novella Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler, this Freudian tale of angst and paranoia seems distant in a way entirely consistent with director Stanley Kubrick's characteristic style. But it also feels dated, which is less typical of a man famed for his prophetic and singular vision of the relationship between film and society.

As with all Kubrick films, it is beautifully crafted and thoroughly hypnotic. Painstakingly staged and filmed, the drama unfolds in a fascinating visual landscape in which every element on screen is under his firm control and actors are merely pawns in a much more complex game involving colour, depth of field, lighting and framing. The characters and their environment are interrelated in a manner more integral than they are in reality. This is a supremely self-aware cinematic artifice. Kubrick crafts a dreamscape in which everything we see has been put there for a reason, and we are drawn to detail only when he wants us to be. Sets and actors all become elements of mise-en-scène and regardless of the star billing of its performers, it's Kubrick's show all the way.

Yet it is difficult to shake off the impression that Kubrick's distance from reality was greater than ever during the production of his last film. Yes we must acknowledge that the film is concerned with the schizm between desire and catharsis. Arguably though the director's self-imposed exile from society has resulted in an increasingly severe cerebral disengagement from ordinary people and their lives, and it has finally backfired. Kubrick is not merely the ironic outsider observing society through its institutions and their absurdity. He seems very much a rather old-fashioned moralist, wrist slapping the twentieth century using Freud 101 via Schnitzler. But then, as with all Kubrick films, first impressions are frequently subject to revision, and in time it may well be as beloved and revered as any of his previous works. It certainly does say a thing or two about contemporary society, and about the century on the whole, but it does rather suggest that it has been a frozen moment of Freudian self-realisation beyond which we have not advanced. I believe Jacques Lacan might disagree.

If you've never seen a Kubrick film before, then Eyes Wide Shut is not a place to start. What pleasures it offers are purely in comparing it with the rest of his oeuvre, and trying to understand precisely what he is trying to achieve by telling a deliberately anachronistic story with an blatantly unauthentic sense of the contemporary. Kubrick was an art film maker in the best and worst sense of the word. Film was for him an art form, and his works of art were both intensely personal and hugely influential. They were frequently challenging, often groundbreaking, almost always prophetic in their ability to stand back from the world and view it through a series of filters which revealed hidden currents and eddies in contemporary thought which became the guidelines for subsequent filmmakers to follow. The director frequently employed generic masks to facilitate his exploration of societal convention and institutions. His skepticism about authority and belief in personal morality was manifest in films from The Killing through Paths of Glory, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. His latter years were more troublesome. A Clockwork Orange did not so much preempt debate about crime and punishment in an increasingly lawless society as become the scapegoat for reactionary lobbyists, who condemned the film as part of the problem. The years between productions increased and the tales of his excess became more mythical. Barry Lyndon (the nearest in spirit to Eyes Wide Shut of all his previous films) boasted scenes lit by candlelight and three hours of restraint and etiquette subjected to savage satire and irony which few had the patience to sit through. The Shining promised big scares and big ideas, but delivered surprisingly little of either. Full Metal Jacket (his penultimate film, released twelve years ago) seemed to cap the Vietnam craze of the 1980s, but was marred by Kubrick's deliberate insistence on two-act structure and a misjudged change in tone halfway through which practically resulted in two films with similar themes rather than thesis and antithesis. But like everything he did, it was no less than fascinating and among the most genuinely powerful movies of its time.

Eyes Wide Shut is a film out of time. Faithfully transcribing the world of a 1920s novel to 1990s Manhattan may have seemed natural to the director, but it results in a peculiar sense of fantasy even before the questions of surreality and illusion kick in. Its faith in Freudianism, the absolute belief in the sexuality of every element of human experience and the constant awareness of the undercurrents of the subconscious reveal a disciplined and fascinating rigour which unfortunately also exposes its own limitations. It is difficult to engage with these characters not because they are cerebral or because Kubrick does not invite us to do so (he never does), but because they are already so unauthentic and unbelievable that they never seem more than set decorations which speak. The film is avowedly concerned with replicating a dream state, and on the level of simple craft, Kubrick has done a magnificent job of doing so without falling prey to the excesses of pure surrealism. His ersatz New York (build on sets in England) is a half-world of paranoia and repeated imagery which 'must mean something' though we are left to consider what it might be relative to the spiritual journey undertaken by Cruise's character. It is a loving tribute to a way of looking at the world which defined the twentieth century, and in that sense it may well be an appropriate send off for both the film maker and his epoch. It is the psychosexual and dramatic underside of tencho-fantasies of The Truman Show and The Matrix and the more visceral world of Videodrome and eXistenZ. Kubrick has seen the twentieth century, and sees it as a frozen moment of confrontation between the id and the superego. All very interesting, but maybe just a tad obvious and not necessarily worth stating quite so portentously. It is also fatally uninvolving, especially for what amounts to an intimate character drama (at least in generic terms).

There is a very real sense that it is much ado about nothing. It is hard to think of these vague and ephemeral feelings of desire as important insights into the difficulties of married life in the 1990s. Cruise's absolute faith in his wife is rightly laughed at by Kidman's slightly doped-up desirous woman. She frightens him with the suggestion that females have hidden motivations and a life of their own, and seems to challenge his perception of himself far too easily for his suave, connected, well-to-do character to be even faintly believable in this setting. After a century of feminism, it seems surprising that this man would be so shocked by so mundane an observation and so typical a challenge to contemporary relationships. It also seems convenient than neither of them ever discusses psychoanalysis or psychotherapy, a subject so immediate in contemporary cinema that Woody Allen deconstructed it long before he started in on himself. It may have been cutting edge when Schnitzler wrote his book, but despite his cinematic sleight-of-hand of filming on enclosed sets in a controlled environment, Kubrick cannot erase the audience's awareness that in the real world of 1990s New York, this is a fantasy from the off. Therefore his attempts to slip in and out of the dream world becomes as much a form of denial as that which plagues his characters. One wonders just whose eyes are wide shut.

It's almost pointless to mention it, but on the level of performance, Cruise seems lost in a way not entirely accidental. He has proved himself a capable actor in serious dramatic roles, perhaps never more so than in Born on the Fourth of July. Kubrick seems content to return him to a previous register of characterisation, a vacuous smart alec who then receives his cumuppence and is confronted with his own emptiness. In what seems a deliberate joke at the actor's expense, Kubrick has robbed him of emotional depth and left an empty shell of a character which is duly played without substance. The character might as well have been computer generated for all the humanity he demonstrates. Everything is in the subconscious sub-texts, and rather than allow Cruise to portray these with the craft of the actor, Kubrick embodies everything in the image and its arrangement in context. Kidman fares slightly better. Her face registers greater emotional complexity and she seems more believable on the whole precisely because she is aware of the hidden inner worlds which her husband seems so surprised to encounter. Sydney Pollack gives a good performance in a role written for the screen which helps to keep the audience involved with what little narrative there is amid this phantasmagoria of the moral imagination.

Kubrick was undoubtedly a master of his craft. It is sad to see he has departed. No serious film fan would deny him his place in the evolution of the medium, nor attempt to pretend that any of his films could be dismissed out of hand. Eyes Wide Shut is watchable, it is interesting, and it definitely demands repeated viewing. There's plenty to admire in there and it never gets boring even if it never gets all that involving. Even when he is at his most distant, Kubrick has never left us so much outside the world of his characters that we really don't care what happens to them or why. This is true here despite the endless attraction of watching the images unfold into a journey through their minds. In time, I'm sure, it will seem all the more significant, either because it will have been written about or because Kubrick's gift of prophecy ran deeper than was evident at first sight. Maybe this is the defining film of the millennium, or at least of the millennial angst we are feeling in the late 1990s. But we should never be afraid to criticise any work of art, and Eyes Wide Shut is ultimately more a work of great craftsmanship than great vision. True art needs both.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.