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. Kubrick, in his seismically anticipated final film, recreates the sidewalks and storefronts of late-1990s Manhattan down to the last grimy fluorescent bodega, Village Voice newspaper box, and neon trashy-lingerie boutique. Yet something is off; there isn’t enough bustle. William, lovingly married yet caught in a web of jealousy and confusion, infiltrates a highly secret masquerade orgy, and a day later he is followed by a mysterious bald man in a tan overcoat. As the two play cat and mouse through the otherwise deserted downtown streets, we’re meant to be suffused with paranoia, yet all I could think of was ”Did Kubrick forget to hire extras that day?”
The eerie hermetic atmosphere of Eyes Wide 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. Yet what we see, instead, is a vague, fragmentary mishmash of ominousness and cheap thrills — Red Shoe Diaries with metaphysical pretensions. I have always been an ardent Kubrick fanatic, but Eyes Wide Shut, a movie that views sexuality not as experience but as ritual, has an oddly formal, closed-off quality, like a dream that has already been analyzed on a shrink’s couch.
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. At Christmas, William and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), leave their daughter with a babysitter and go off to a luxe holiday bash thrown by Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), a wealthy libertine whose residence is roughly the size of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Aroused by her night of flirting, Alice, stoned in her bedroom, 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.
Eyes Wide Shut is structured as an amorphous series of cliff-hangers, each of which promises a kinky catharsis that doesn’t quite arrive. A patient of William’s dies, and the dead man’s daughter, grief tearing at her propriety, blurts out that she’s in love with the good doctor. Later, he gets picked up by a bombshell hooker, who — preposterously — acts as if she’s trying to seduce him for a romantic evening. And what a coincidence it is that William runs into his old buddy Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), a jazz pianist who just happens to be playing, blindfolded, at an orgy later that night. (Since when was live music such a turn-on?)
William, in the film’s nuttiest episode, scrambles to find a mask and costume so that he can attend, and he then taxis out to a royal Long Island estate for an aristocratic pagan sex party. What follows is the film’s dramatic-erotic centerpiece, a deeply unholy rite of excess that looks like The Story of O staged by a cult of Benedictine monks. There is roiling medieval-bummer music. There are sacramentally arranged nudes and masked and black-cloaked onlookers engaged, here and there, in acts of frenzied coitus (in the R-rated version being released in the U.S., most of the risque activity is concealed behind digitally superimposed figures). The trippiest moment in the movie is the conversation between William and the nude beauty 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, as perversely spellbinding as it is, isn’t 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, such as the hotel clerk (Alan Cumming) who flexes his eyebrows like a mincing Martin Short, or the monotonous two-note piano theme, or 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 tres 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. Was a woman at the party sacrificed so that William could live? The mere possibility is meant to creep us out. Kubrick, though, clearly hadn’t seen enough straight-to-cable thrillers, which routinely transmute nasty sex into death. The bad babe who ends up a white-wax corpse, the pillar of society who’s really a paragon of decadence — these characters have little thrust in a world where sexual transgression long ago saturated pop culture and middle-class life itself. 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. C