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Friday, Aug. 6, 1999

'EYES WIDE SHUT'

Kubrick 1999: A sex odyssey?


After 12 years of waiting for a new film by Stanley Kubrick (after 1987's "Full Metal Jacket," one of his best) and after five years in production (during which many rumors started to float), the posthumous release of Kubrick's final film, "Eyes Wide Shut," is at last upon us. And, just like that other highly anticipated film of the summer, "Star Wars Episode I," "Eyes Wide Shut" is a technically very accomplished film, but clearly lacking something at its core.

It's easier to describe this episodic, obtuse film, based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1923 novel "Traumnovelle," in negative terms. First of all, it's not crystal clear. Also, for those of you who've been seduced by the hype-machine, it's not the shag-fest that it's billed to be. Like its title, "Eyes Wide Shut" is an oxymoron: a film about sex that's not in the least sexy, a Hollywood star vehicle that's closer to European art film, and -- last but not least -- a Stanley Kubrick film that's rather dull, and that's a first.

Clocking in at two hours and 40 minutes, the film's pace is less languid than soporific, and takes a great deal of time to hammer home it's rather few points. Set in New York -- or rather, the faux New York of a U.K. soundstage, where the cabbies actually speak English and streetwalkers are sweet -- "Eyes Wide Shut" is the age-old "sex is dangerous" morality play enacted in leaden slo-mo.

Dr. William Harford and his wife Alice (real-life couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) are happily married, with an adorable child and comfortable Upper West Side lifestyle. When the film opens, we find them attending a glitzy party. Alice is hit on by a totally ludicrous seducer who is some sort of Hungarian count, while William is engaged by a pair of aggressive beauties until the party's host, Victor (Sydney Pollack), calls him to the bathroom to deal with a nude, overdosing hooker. Thus are the film's themes bluntly established: sexual desire and death.

Later, Bill and Alice have a quiet moment at home, reflecting on the come-ons they faced. When Bill says he trusts that his wife would never stray, Alice laughs at his naivete. She then recounts a fantasy she had regarding a naval officer she met while vacationing on Cape Cod, saying "At no time was he ever out of my mind. And I thought if he wanted me, only for one night, I was ready to give up everything." This sets Bill off, and he can't keep images of Alice with her sailor-boy from his mind.

Wandering the streets of Manhattan, the entire city seems to be conspiring to keep Dr. Bill hot and bothered, as he encounters a hooker (Vanessa Shaw), a mourning daughter who attempts to seduce him by her dead father's bedside, a Lolita-esque nymphette and finally, a full-blown secret-society orgy. Bill, who's blagged his way into this ritualistic debauchery, becomes convinced that his life is in danger.

On its most primary thematic level, "Eyes Wide Shut" is a cheat. Its issues of sexual jealousy and infidelity are valid -- we are all tempted, and many of us do stray. Yet "Eyes Wide Shut," despite a promising start in the rapport and tensions between Cruise and Kidman, does not address the real complexities of human emotions. Nor does it engage the obvious need for resisting temptation -- emotional honesty and trust between a couple. Rather, it posits the scare-mongering notion that sexual escapades are dangerous, a flirtation with death, be this the specter of AIDS or a masked pervert.

Now this has certainly been done before, far more entertainingly and engagingly; what we get here is "Fatal Attraction" without the knives, or "Blue Velvet" without Dennis Hopper. Or, for that matter, David Lynch's more serious recognition of the pull that dark carnal desires can have on us. Despite putting himself in the path of temptation, the good doctor at no point succumbs. The dangers do not expose his dark side, only that of society, from which Bill must flee, and return to the security of home and hearth.

This is a simplistically moralistic approach, and no matter how hard one tries to put a positive spin on it, it is hardly "visionary," which is the standard we'd come to expect from Kubrick. Equating marital infidelity with danger (read: punishment) is an attitude that is both typically American and Hollywood, which is ironic, give Kubrick's renunciation of both (he hadn't set foot in the States for almost two decades at the time of his death).

But while failing in its grand arc, "Eyes Wide Shut" reflects Kubrick's deep suspicion of human nature in interesting ways. Ironically, it's honesty in the relationship (Alice revealing her hidden desires) that nearly destroys it, honesty that leads to deception, lies and vague feelings of revenge. And in the film's total denial of the pleasures of sex -- nevermind the absence of onscreen star sex -- Kubrick is toying with his audience, forcing us to confront the fact that the reality of imagined desires is rarely as good as the dream.

Yet while this is all quite admirable on a conceptual basis, the film just doesn't play. Kubrick's usual eye for memorable visual flair is lost in murky, grainy compositions, while his trademark black humor is nowhere to be seen. And Cruise as Dr. William Harford has got to be the most leaden lead this side of Ryan O'Neal in "Barry Lyndon."

More damningly, far too many of the characters and situations are simply implausible. Take the notorious sex party: Masked De Sade-ian orgies? Perhaps. On Long Island? Not. One imagines they would look more like the "key party" in "The Ice Storm" than the gothic "Story of 'O' " excess that Kubrick feeds us here. (Also, interestingly, Kubrick changes the original novel's erotically charged atmosphere to an atmosphere of terror, which further skews the focus.)

Many of Kubrick's films have opened to mixed reviews and reaction, only to ripen with age. Perhaps "Eyes Wide Shut" will reveal more with repeat viewings, but at this point the only thing that can be said with certainty is this: "Eyes Wide Shut" will leave a lot of people like its protagonist, Dr. Bill, strangely unsatisfied.

"Eyes Wide Shut" is playing at Tokyu Bunka Kaikan in Shibuya and other theaters.


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