Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) is holding one of his grand parties tonight and once again Dr Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) are invited. What with Christmas approaching, it is to be a seasonal occasion, but after the Harfords greet the Zieglers and are dancing in the ballroom together, Alice wonders aloud exactly why they always get invited to these things when they don't know anybody there. They split up to do a little mingling and Alice begins to get tipsy on champagne, ending up dancing with an older Hungarian gentleman (Sky Dumont) who attempts to seduce her. Even drunk, she's far too marrried to take him up on his suggestion, but the thought of it threatens to divide Alice from Bill - and worse...
Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's final film was this chilly relationships drama which halfway through transformed into an austere thriller where tension was noticeably lacking. Scripting with Fredric Raphael, this was his adaptation of a novel from the early twentieth century by Arthur Schnitzler which curiously attempted to find a universality in attitudes from decades before as if little had changed in the intervening years. In its favour, the film did work up a sleepwalker's mood of moving through a half-explained, half-understood landscape, but other than that it struggled to keep the intrigue going for its full two and a half hour running time.
The main trouble is that the Harfords are a couple who may be tempted to stray in their fantasies, but would never actually do it in real life. This results in a distinct lack of suspense as Bill wanders through the nighttime landscape of New York (or an approximation of it) facing sexual enticement but never doing anything about it. What has triggered this meandering? Earlier in the evening, Alice accused him of wanting to bed two young ladies he was arm in arm with at the party and this led to her telling him of the only time she felt like committing adultery.
Yet crucially, she didn't. Despite the absence of any affair, Bill is traumatised by this revelation and the thought of his wife even considering another man other than her husband atttractive, so when he has to answer a house call which leads to the daughter of his now-deceased patient professing her love for him, he's sent into quite a tizzy. Just not a particularly exciting tizzy, walking the streets and encountering rowdy students and a prostitute (Vinessa Shaw) until he tracks down an old college chum (Todd Field) who now plays in a jazz band. It is he who informs Bill of a very special party, an exclusive one which takes place in a mansion out in the country - and he gives Bill the password to get in.
It's at this moment that the narrative alters to become a mystery that may - or may not - lead the doctor to be responsible for a death. Guilt is the order of the day, with Bill's almost but not quite dalliances coming to a head by his gatecrashing of what appears to be some kind of elitist black mass, with the participants all masked and in a state of undress (well, the female ones anyway). When Bill is discovered not to be "one of them" if you see what I mean he is plunged into a nightmare of paranoia where he cannot tell his wife about what has happened and cannot be sure if he is now being tracked and menaced. How this matches up with the marriage troubles is none too neat, and Cruise looks like a little boy lost as Bill is pinballed around between his wife's passions, his own passions, and the passions of the shadowy others. The famed Kubrick sense of humour is sadly lacking, save for a nice Alan Cumming cameo as a flirtatious desk clerk, and as far as eroticism goes it's far too clinical to excite. It doesn't excite as a thriller either, so Eyes Wide Shut is merely an oddity, a footnote to a great career. Music by Jocelyn Pook.
American director famous for his technical skills and endless film shoots, who made some of modern cinema's greatest pictures. New York-born Kubrick began shooting documentaries in the early 50s, leading to his first directing jobs on the moody noir thrillers Killer's Kiss and The Killing. The powerful anti-war film Paths of Glory followed, leading star Kirk Douglas to summon Kubrick to direct the troubled Spartacus in 1960.
Lolita was a brave if not entirely successful attempt to film Nabokov's novel, but Kubrick's next three films were all masterpieces. 1964's Dr Strangelove was a brilliant, pitch black war comedy, 2001: A Space Odyssey set new standards in special effects, while A Clockwork Orange was a hugely controversial, shocking satire that the director withdrew from UK distribution soon after its release. Kubrick, now relocated to England and refusing to travel elsewhere, struggled to top this trio, and the on-set demands on his cast and crew had become infamous.
Barry Lyndon was a beautiful but slow-paced period piece, The Shining a scary Stephen King adaptation that was nevertheless disowned by the author. 1987's Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket showed that Kubrick had lost none of his power to shock, and if the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut was a little anti-climatic, it still capped a remarkable career.
Not sexy? Maybe I'm easily pleased, but naked girls in masks, Vanissa Shaw and Lelee Sobieski's coquettish smile certainly got my attention back in 1999. I'm more fond of EWS than most. Kubrick's humour is evident, not just with Cumming's camp concierge, but every time Cruise flashes his ID, his flustered reactions to the women's advances, and Kidman's final line. In it's own eerie, enigmatic way the film is quite upbeat. Husband and wife wind up reconciled.
One last anecdote: I first saw this in a tiny cinema in Chichester (having snuck in despite being underage) where I found myself the only viewer under the age of eighty!
27 Mar 2008
I'd prefer the naked ladies without the masks, to be honest! I wouldn't say the Harfords are reconciled because they never really split up in the first place. If it wasn't for the secret society business the film would be even more of a non-event.
But it holds a special place in my heart for being the last film I ever saw in the Sauchiehall Street ABC before it was closed down. I think I was about the only person in the cinema!