We gave it a C
In Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, William Harford (Tom Cruise), a high-society physician fueled by hidden yearnings, wanders, lonely and fervid, through the sets of New York — and I do mean sets, not streets.
The eerie hermetic atmosphere of ”Shut” extends to the movie’s human encounters. Virtually every Kubrick film, even ”Barry Lyndon,” has been built on some sort of miraculous technical feat. This time, Kubrick, working on a soundstage, re-creates the banal surfaces of modern life — reception desks, coffee shops — as if they were science-fiction artifacts. ”Eyes Wide Shut,” a mystery that intertwines lust, fear, and death, wants to show the temptations of the everyday transformed into a whirlpool of fantasy. It aims to lull the audience into a hypnotic dream state.
Loosely adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 ”Traumnovelle” (”Dream Story”), the movie wants to reveal the unruly longings that can scratch and paw away at even a healthy marriage. William and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), go off to a luxe holiday bash thrown by Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), a wealthy libertine. Aroused by her night of flirting, Alice attempts to prod her husband into admitting his yearnings for other women. When he denies having any, she launches into a spicy confession of her own, describing how she became sexually obsessed, at least in her imagination, with a hunky naval officer. The admission spins William into a night-stalking odyssey of abandon.
Essentially, it’s Cruise’s movie (Kidman, after the ravishing fury of her monologue, recedes into the background), and the actor seems to express everything but desire. As William, he’s curious, urgent, yet never truly possessed, and it hardly helps that the character has to keep returning, in torment, to his banal fantasy vision of his wife’s infidelity, or that he’s bounced, like a boyish Candide, through one unfathomable encounter after the next. Unlike, say, Kyle MacLachlan in ”Blue Velvet,” William may be tempted, but he never makes it past voyeurism. He’s too guilty to act.
The trippiest moment in the movie is the conversation between William and a nude beauty at an aristocratic pagan sex party who tries to warn him away. Emanating from behind those masks, their disembodied voices (hers recalls that of the spaceport announcer in ”2001”) are like the mind-body split turned into swanky surrealism.
I hope I don’t offend the gods of cinema by pointing out that this somber control-freak orgy, the film’s dramatic-erotic centerpiece, is perversely spellbinding but not really sexy. It’s a neo-Victorian aesthete’s vision of swinging, and Kubrick has nothing in his bag of tricks to top it. In ”Eyes Wide Shut,” the director’s famously over-deliberate, pause-laden style verges, for the first time, on amateurville, and that gives us too much time to linger on the movie’s more bizarre details like the fact that William, after his night of vicarious sin, insists on returning his costume (you’d think he’d have just bought the damn thing).
The ongoing motif of the mask is offered up as très profound (the loss of identity in Eros and all that), yet ”Eyes Wide Shut” turns into a series of haphazard revelations that come to very little. Stanley Kubrick was a genius, but by the time he died, he’d observed a generation’s worth of cultural change from within his self-imposed bunker, and the remove shows. It’s his eyes, I’m afraid, that seem to have been wide shut, and his movie that wears a mask.