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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Monday 27th July 2009

Eyes Wide Shut


It’s a pity Stanley Kubrik died a day after turning in his final cut of Eyes Wide Shut (18) since it meant Warner Bros. had no choice but to respect it’s agreement with the director not to alter a single frame. Kubrik had a reputation as a perfectionist, a control freak who obsessed over every tiny little detail, but Eyes Wide Shut is a mess, a puzzlingly amateurish film. It’s disjointed and uneven and—at 159 minutes—at least half-an-hour too long. If only Kubrik had died a day before he’d finished it. That way, Warner Bros. would have had an excuse to “fix” it in post-production. It would have made it worse, of course, but at least then we could have blamed its awfulness on the studio. As it is, it’s a terribly disappointing end to Kubrik’s career. Walking out of the cinema, I found myself wishing I hadn’t seen it.

The inspiration for the film comes from a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler called Traumnovelle, a parable about the dangers of giving free rein to your sexual appetites. Kubrik hired the novelist and screenwriter Frederic Raphael to update the story, setting it in contemporary New York, but unfortunately the blame can’t be shifted to him either. In a self-serving article in The New Yorker, Raphael explained that his brilliant screenplay was butchered by Kubrik who pared it down to its bare essentials. What excited Kubrik about Schnitzler’s story was its Freudian pshychology, the idea that civilized human conduct is crucially dependent on sexual repression. Kubrik had always been fascinated by man in his most primitive, inhuman state. In his last film, Full Mental Jacket, the characters are brutalized by the US Army which successfully transforms them into killing machines. In Eyes Wide Shut, it’s naked human flesh (and plenty of it) that turns his characters into beasts—snorting, rutting beasts.

The protagonists, played by real-life husband-and-wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, are an affluent, happily-married couple who, in the course of the film, are exposed to a series of increasingly bizarre temptations. The point of their various trials is to illustrate that their happiness rests on an extremely precarious foundation. In a pivotal scene Kidman reveals that she almost abandoned Cruise and their young daughter for a soldier she happened to see in a crowded hotel lobby. Will they risk everything for one night of depravity, as they both seem inclined to do, or remain faithful to one another?

In the right hands a cinematic parable about the terrible consequences of giving in to sexual temptation could have been quite entertaining, an opportunity to show lots of nudity with some Freudian psychoanalysis thrown in to make it respectable. Roman Polanski, for instance, might have had some fun with it. But Kubrik is in deadly earnest here, apparently under the impression that he’s communicating some profound, piercing insight into the human condition. The story moves along at a stately, funereal pace and the copious sex scenes, including a full-blown orgy, are peculiarly bloodless. He struggles to give these passages an unsettling, dream-like quality but never relinquishes sufficient control to carry it off. Kubrik’s imagination was too cerebral, his style too formal, to inject these scenes with any erotic heat.

Eyes Wide Shut is by no means an unqualified failure. There are three or four set-pieces that bare all the hallmarks of Kubrik at his best: his painstaking craftsmanship, his formal perfectionism, his logical, geometric sensibility. In one memorable scene, Kubrik’s camera follows Cruise as he pilots his way through a hospital to the mortuary in its bowels, capturing it’s bland, antiseptic atmosphere. Kubrik was very much at home in these over-ordered, slightly sinister environments, even when they were in outer space. But when he entered inner space—when he attempted to explore the less tangible terrain of the human psyche—his mathematical style let him down. In Eyes Wide Shut there’s a mismatch between his technique and his material.

Some American critics complained about Tom Cruise’s wooden performance, but Kubrik boxes him in so tightly there’s very little he can do. Because he’s required to play an archetype, an everyman stripped of any individuating personality traits, he has no means of bringing the character to life. Nicole Kidman’s role is a bit more meaty, and she has two or three good scenes, but her performance is a little too reminiscent of Shelley Duvall’s in The Shinging. Kubrik was suspiciously fond of putting his lead actresses through the mill, wearing them down until they were a bundle of frayed nerves.

In America, Eyes Wide Shut hasn’t been the commercial success that Warner Bros. had hoped and the studio is now banking on a favourable response in Europe to recoup its costs. I doubt it will happen. Die hard Kubrik fans will almost certainly go and see it but I suspect even they will be disappointed.

The Spectator, September 10, 1999

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