movie film review | chris tookey

Eyes Wide Shut

1999 - Warner Brothers - all rights reserved
  Eyes Wide Shut Review
Tookey's Rating
6 /10
Average Rating
8.00 /10
Dr. William Harford: Tom Cruise , Alice Harford: Nicole Kidman , Victor Ziegler: Sydney Pollack
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Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael . Inspired by Traumnovelle (Dream Story), by Arthur Schnitzler.

Released: 1999
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 159

A married doctor (played by Tom Cruise) goes on a nocturnal quest for sexual adventure. Everywhere he goes in a stylised New York, women - whether pushy models, grieving daughters, or hookers with the obligatory heart of gold - throw themselves at him. Maybe this happens a lot to Manhattan medics. The day after, when Cruise has stopped cruising and is trying to make sense of his overnight experiences, he's still irresistible. A hotel clerk (Alan Cumming) makes goo-goo eyes at him, and a costume-store proprietor (Rade Serbedzija) offers him sex with his obliging, underage daughter (Lee Lee Sobiesky). Eventually, a kindly friend (Sydney Pollack) tells our hero what's been going on, as the collective jaw of the audience drops to the carpet in disbelief.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Contrary to pre-release rumours, Staney Kubrick's last film is not a pornographic home movie about the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman marriage. The few nude shots of Miss Kidman (pictured) are discreet, and favour her derriere. Mr Cruise does not dress up in women's clothing. He does not kiss a corpse nor display the slightest interest in necrophilia. Those in search of sexual sensation may find it hard to keep their eyes wide open.

It sets out to be an erotic, mystery thriller. Its best scenes are grown-up, riveting and create a sense of waking nightmare. At its worst, it is slow, cold, self-important and humourless. Sitting through all of it is a bit like having to endure a two-and-a-half-hour version of Confessions of a Window-Cleaner, as re-imagined by Harold Pinter.

Kubrick's film is based on a story by the Austrian Arthur Schnitzler, a dedicated sensualist. But Kubrick either can't or doesn't wish to imitate Schnitzler's tone: he keeps veering uncertainly between soft porn and a posher form of kitchen-sink realism (ensuite-lavatory realism?). And the dialogue, by Kubrick and his co-screenwriter Frederic Raphael, descends frequently into the stilted and banal.

Nicole Kidman, as Cruise's wife, plays the few moments she has with marvellous transparency. But not even she can make sense of a character who starts off as a sexual narcissist with a drink problem and a drug habit, and ends up as a fond mother and forgiving wife, without having undergone any visible emotional crisis in between.

Tom Cruise's performance is disappointingly bland and impenetrable. The moment that sparks his sexual quest comes in the best scene, when Kidman's character confesses that she would have left him and their seven year-old daughter for a fling with a naval officer she spotted in some hotel. This is a shocking revelation; but it is a mystery why it causes Cruise to go off into the night in search of sex with various women, all of them less attractive than his wife.

Is he doing this out of revenge, or jealousy, or because he feels inadequate, or because he is curious to find out if he is sexually driven to the same extent? We never know. And, whatever the answer, he seems guilty of melodramatic over-reaction.

There is plenty to admire in the look of the film, especially Kubrick's characteristically elegant use of tracking shots. Film academics may also enjoy the symbolic structure, the way everything - from shop names to newspaper headlines - is neatly tailored to the themes of fantasy, lust and death. I found it painfully artificial and schematic.

Worse, the film feels antiquated. The elderly Hungarian who chats up Kidman on a dance floor resembles a Bond villain of the Sixties, or even some rep actor playing Dracula in the 1920s. It seems inconceivable that we - and Kidman - are meant to take him seriously.

Equally old-fashioned is the vision of a depraved upper class congregating in a country house for a sedate orgy, the kind of idea which was sent up in the Sixties by The Avengers. It seems even more ridiculous today, especially as Kubrick makes the sequence neither plausible nor erotic.

The female bodies on display are like shop dummies, the actors too carefully posed, the tone too much of a religious sacrament. It is like something that might be imagined by an elderly nun whose only notion of sex came from watching the films of Peter Greenaway.

Another dated aspect is the way Kubrick resolves the mystery element of his thriller through a talky scene between Cruise and Sydney Pollack. This is too blatantly an over-hasty way to wrap up the plot, and makes the leading character look even more foolish and passive than he did before.

What's it all about? Superficially, it's a Fatal Attraction-style treatise about the importance of marital fidelity. On a deeper level, however, it's a dour exploration of social dehumanisation, a subject which has intrigued Kubrick since his earliest films. He sees society as dangerous. He expresses a strikingly austere, existentialist view of the individual as alone, unknowable and corrupt.

This vision is certain to endear him to the lonely, nerdy and perverted; but for most people this is unpersuasive and far from endearing. As in the case of Barry Lyndon, another Kubrick film attacking social decadence, it results in a cinematic experience that is strangely airless and enervated.

It is easy to see that the reclusive Kubrick identifies strongly with Cruise's character, a control-freak who fears his own sexual desires and feels excluded from upper-class society despite professional success. But Kubrick won't involve many people fully with his obsessions.

His approach is often clinical, and sometimes off-puttingly cruel. As Cruise's character roams the streets of his New York Neverland, he resembles a lab rat being driven this way and that in some unfathomable laboratory experiment.

There has always been a touch of the mad scientist about Kubrick. At the end, I was left wondering whether his demands for retakes were really a reflection of his perfectionism, or an unconscious, final act of revenge against the Hollywood star system he detested.

When Kubrick made his first major film, Spartacus, he was famously outranked and humiliated by Kirk Douglas; it must have given him a buzz to know that in the making and remaking of Eyes Wide Shut, he had the critical cachet to order about another of Hollywood's biggest stars, and he would still keep coming back for more.

Well, Kubrick got his way, and plenty of people saluted Eyes Wide Shut as a masterpiece, instead of the flawed work that it is. The irony is that Spartacus, for all its pomposities and a central performance of towering narcissism, has genuine passion and never fails to involve its audience - two reasons why it is by far the better, and more popular, film.

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