Eyes Wide Shut Review

by Gary Jones (newsmaster AT bohr DOT demon DOT co DOT uk)
September 30th, 1999

Eyes Wide Shut (9/10)

14th and 17th September 1999: Cineworld, Bristol

I first heard about Eyes Wide Shut in March 1996. I had been an admirer of Stanley Kubrick for twenty years, and in that time had only twice been able to experience a new Kubrick release, so it was good to hear of a new film starting production. It was nevertheless a bit of a disappointment that Kubrick's next film would not be his much anticipated project A.I., but would instead be a drama starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

For three and a half years, the Internet has been awash with speculation and rumour about the cast and content of Eyes Wide Shut. Cast replacements and secretive and protracted principal photography fuelled the gossip, much of it outrageous, and nearly all of it incorrect. Finally the film itself here, and in the most tragic of circumstances. This is the last time we will ever see a new film from Stanly Kubrick. He was a legendary figure - one of the few truly great film makers - and a much misunderstood man. And now he's gone.

In Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise plays New York doctor Bill Harford and Nicole Kidman plays his wife Alice. Their marriage seems perfect, but one night Alice admits to having had sexual fantasies about another man. Bill is deeply disturbed by this revelation and in his jealousy and desire for revenge enters a sexual underworld, the heart of which is a masked ritual orgy that takes place in a country mansion and at which things turn very dark for Bill and very weird for the viewer.
Is Eyes Wide Shut the fitting end to a great career that some reviewers have claimed, or the monumental turkey that others have reported? I think it depends on whether you get Kubrick films or not. Some are put off by the feeling of cold detachment in many Kubrick films - we often don't empathise with the characters or feel we are in the presence of real people, but instead we observe the characters as subjects on a microsope slide. This clinical formality can either be deeply off- putting or can be the price you willingly pay for letting Kubrick in to mess with your head. Personally, I'm willing to go along for the ride. After first seeing Eyes Wide Shut, I wasn't sure what I thought of it. Now it's had a chance to bed down a little, and I've seen it again, I think it is marvellous, but overlong. The film is full of subtleties of plot and theme that endlessly turn over in the mind. Questions are raised in the film and apparently answered, but ambiguities remain, and multiple interpretations are possible. A second viewing raises as many questions as it answers.

The centrepiece of the film is the masked orgy sequence. From the moment Bill arrives at the mansion gates to the moment he leaves, this 20-minute sequence is as good as anything Kubrick has ever done. The interplay of image and music to evoke mystery, eroticism and fear is spellbinding (although occasionally I had to wonder how satisfactory oral sex can be when the participants are wearing masks). The American release of Eyes Wide Shut was altered by placing computer-generated figures over certain of the more vigorously copulating orgy-goers. This was done to get the film an 'R' rating, rather than the more appropriate but commercially difficult 'NC-17' rating. This has become known as the "Austin Powers" version of Eyes Wide Shut. The digital cover-ups were, apparently, approved in principle by Kubrick before his death. In the U.S., hardcore porn is freely available, yet commercial considerations mean that adults cannot see a serious mainstream film featuring simulated sex in which no genitals are visible but which includes an unacceptably vigourous level of thrusting. What a strange country America is.

The film has an extraordinary visual quality. As he has done before, Kubrick shot Eyes Wide Shut using low lighting levels. The film was deliberately underexposed during shooting and overexposed during developing to compensate. This produces a dream-like washed-out grainy feel to the image. At times the scene seems alive with an orange glow, and during some close-ups, the grain is so prominent that the image seems to shimmer. (On a more practical level, low lighting levels also means a relatively small crew, so daily rates can be kept low, thereby allowing longer shooting schedules.) The look of the film is also influenced by a recurring motif of christmas tree lights and many other examples of similar tiny lights, such as in shop displays and cafes, and in curtains of beaded light.

Although there are few of the obvious trademarks, such as dramatic tracking shots through interior spaces, or the full-face shots of characters on the edge of insanity, the film still has the distinctive Kubrick feel. Interiors are framed and lit to provide not just a place where the action is set, but a psychological location for the characters. Colours scream out at you with significance. What that significance is it is hard to say, but perhaps any attempt to put it into words is to miss the point. Kubrick films work at a deep subconscious level, creating moods and reactions in the viewer that are not meant to be explained or understood.

As is usual with Kubrick films, the choice of music is eclectic and mixes original compositions with existing recordings. The original pieces are by Jocelyn Pook, whose sombre chamber music is central to several parts of the film, including the masked orgy sequence. Kubrick has again made use of the music of avant-garde composer Gyorgy Ligeti. The use of Ligeti in 2001 was spot on, but the use of his piano music in Eyes Wide Shut has come in for some criticism. To the untrained ear, such as mine, it sounds like little more than a child playing individual notes with little concern for melody or rhythm. Listening to the music in isolation, it is austere and foreboding, but in the context of the film, that damned piano music struck me at times as just plain ridiculous and nearly destroyed what it sought to augment.

Another noteworthy aspect of Kubrick films is the performances he gets from his actors. Tom Cruise is not an actor that seemed a likely choice for a Stanley Kubrick film, having neither the emotional intensity of a star like Jack Nicholson, nor the relative anonymity of the cast of 2001 or Full Metal Jacket. The casting of Cruise is reminiscent of that of Ryan O'Neal in Barry Lyndon. In defending his casting of O'Neal, Kubrick said in one of his rare interviews that "the personal qualities of an actor, as they relate to the role, are almost as important as his ability". Presumably similar considerations lay behind the casting of Cruise, who carries the main acting burden, appearing in virtually every scene. He is nevertheless hamstrung by his narrow range. Nicole Kidman is generally fine, but even she sometimes seemed to chew the scenery a bit. The minor roles are the usual collection of Kubrick eccentrics. None of this is meant to be critical - it's the peculiar nature of the performances, even those that would be deemed stilted or just plain bad in other films, that contribute to the disconcerting other-worldly appeal of Kubrick films. Sydney Pollack's performance as Bill's friend Ziegler does, however, seem slightly out-of-place, his being the sort of naturalistic performance we'd expect in a normal film.

The pacing of the film is often painfully slow. Scenes are dragged out and lines... are... often... delivered... with... great... big... gaps... between... words. Kubrick has been known to trim slow sequences after critical test audience reaction (he did it with 2001 and trimmed the European release of The Shining) and it is interesting to speculate whether he would have similarly tightened-up Eyes Wide Shut if he had had the chance. With his death, the film became untouchable. Despite being half an hour too long, Eyes Wide Shut is the work of a master whose ambition and vision makes a trip to the movies an experience that transcends mere entertainment. It is magnificent, but occasionally a magnificent bore.

Gary Jones
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