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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
4 Stars

Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Todd Field, Madison Eginton, Rade Sherbedgia, Vinessa Shaw, Marie Richardson, Leelee Sobieski, Fay Masterson, Alan Cumming.
1999 – 159 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for nudity, sex, and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 17, 1999.

Leave it up to Stanley Kubrick to spend the last two years of his life making the most humane, emotional motion picture of his career. A planned eight-month shoot that began in late 1996, the filming kept going, finally surpassing years of dedication on the parts of known-perfectionist Kubrick, and stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Two actors (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Harvey Keitel) dropped out after filming their roles due to scheduling conflicts, and so their scenes had to be reshot; filming for the actors making virtual cameos stretched from a couple weeks to several months; a cloak of secrecy was heavily shrouded over the particulars of the plot, and only weeks before the release was the premise confirmed; talk of a possible NC-17 rating due to soft-core sex scenes was denied when the picture got an R, and it was only days before its July 16 release that it was discovered images were digitally added, allegedly with Kubrick's permission before his death, in a now-hotly-debated and controversial 65-second sequence involving an orgy. Kubrick has, to be sure, always been a master of the camera and filmmaking in general (just take a gander at 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey," 1971's "A Clockwork Orange," and 1980's "The Shining" for proof of his one-of-a-kind nature), but his previous films all have had an obvious cold detachment about them. It wasn't a flaw on Kubrick's part, but simply one of the defining elements of each of his films. His latest, and final, triumph is "Eyes Wide Shut," which is a Kubrick picture in every sense of the word, except for in the lasting impression it leaves on the viewer. At once downbeat and intellectually-draining, the unforgettable characters that make up the world of "Eyes Wide Shut" nonetheless are more tender and, simply put, human, than in any of Kubrick's past films.

Set during the week before Christmas in New York City, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), live in a large Central Park West apartment with their 7-year-old daughter, Helena (Madison Eginton). Happily married, when Bill and Alice make their way to a ritzy holiday party given by their friend, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), they find themselves both having to turn down members of the opposite sex that make sexual advances toward them. The next night, after smoking a little pot, Alice finds herself confessing to Bill that in the previous summer, while on vacation at Cape Cod, she briefly met a devastatingly handsome naval officer, and if he would have happened to want to be with her, she was ready to give up her husband, her daughter, her whole life, just for one night. Immediately afterwards, called to be told that one of his patients has died, Bill, emotionally distraught by his wife's revelation, sets off on a night-long odyssey of his own through the streets of Manhattan that concludes at a secluded and highly guarded mansion in which a suspicious masquerade ball is in full swing.

It's difficult to describe the premise of "Eyes Wide Shut" because, for one, the story has been so heavily secretive for so long that to say anymore wouldn't be fair, and two, words merely could never do justice to the film as a whole. Deliberately-paced and eerily beautiful, the film is an ultimately rewarding experience that, when all is said and done, adds up to 159 minutes of sheer cinema artistry. One of the biggest delights of "Eyes Wide Shut" is in its completely unpredictable nature. Rarely ever can you detect which direction the film is going in, or where things will end up, and, therefore, for the entire running time I was completely glued to the screen, eager to find out what would happen, and subsequently who we would meet, next. Reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries," the film is lyrical and passionate, but never sexually titillating as was so widely predicted, and there is a strange, rewarding fascination in watching one character go through his own journey, whether it be in physical or emotional terms.

Written by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, "Eyes Wide Shut," like very few films I've seen, slowly but surely wrapped around me and put me under its rapturous spell. Every character, including each of the supporting ones, have been created with such subtle, truthful details that it would be very difficult to forget or not be affected in some way by all of them. Tom Cruise, often times, and unfairly, criticized for, in essence, playing the same role over and over again, strips away every one of those exterior pretenses this time around and never strikes a false note, handling every one of his difficult scenes with matured aplomb that I don't think I've ever seen from him. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman in a slightly smaller role than expected, is the heart and soul of the film, as the alternately distanced and loving Alice who, in a tour de force monologue, admits to, once, having the desire to put everything behind her simply to be with a stranger. "And yet," as she says to Bill, "at that exact moment I've never felt closer to you." A particularly moving, seemingly minor but vitally important moment, comes when Bill gets home from work later at night to find Alice helping their daughter with her school work. Alice clearly loves her child so very much, but as Bill observes her, he questions how she could ever have considered leaving her.

As for the supporting characters, no one is let off without making some sort of long-term impression. The now-23-year-old Vinessa Shaw, previously a teen actress (1992's "Ladybugs," 1993's "Hocus Pocus"), makes a warm, delicately touching turn as Domino, a prostitute whom Bill comes into contact with and, for one fleeting moment, finds a comforting solace in her understanding, strangely virtuous personality. Todd Field, as Bill's old medical school buddy, Nick Nightingale, who later dropped out and is now a piano player, works very well with Cruise and they have one scene together set in a small night club/bar that really cooks, both for the fabulous dialogue and their effortless accord with one another. Sydney Pollack is dynamite as the friendly Victor Ziegler who may or may not be harboring a few secrets of his own. Pollack treats every one of his lines as if it were his last, and therefore, is able to make the character his own. In a scene towards the end between Bill and Victor, Pollack also happens to leave us with a thought-provoking notion: "Life goes on. It always does, until it doesn't." Rade Serbedgia, as a man who runs a costume shop, is memorably off-kilter and amusing, and as his sexually promiscuous teenage daughter, Leelee Sobieski lights up the screen with her angelically devilish smiles. And Faye Masterson, as Domino's roommate, Sally, has a poignant scene with Bill in which she reveals something that I never saw coming, and that may at first seem pointless but, on closer introspection, couldn't be any further from the truth.

The centerpiece of "Eyes Wide Shut," of course, coming midway through, is the private masquerade party that Bill manages to get into when he acquires the password. It should be noted that it is in this scene that the infamous 65-second orgy occurs, in which digitally-created images were placed in front of the perverse sexual acts to only partially hide what was going on. At once ludicrous of the MPAA to treat American adults like children, the added figures really do look believable and, dare I say it, contributes to, rather than hurts, the dream-like air of the scene. As for the approximately 17-minute sequence as a whole, things develop at such as gradual, foreboding pace, and aided magnificently by the ominous, red-letter music score, by Jocelyn Pook, which is the repetitive striking of two piano keys, that the suspense builds up to an almost unbearable crescendo. This scene is, by and far, virtuoso filmmaking, one of the most indelible moments on film this decade, and only goes to prove what a brilliant craftsman Kubrick was. Throughout the film, there are passing references to dreams, including one moment at the end when Alice suggests to Bill that they really should stop dreaming, in relegation to their potentially troubled marriage, and admittedly, the whole film feels like an ostensibly aimless dream with no final destination (which, in many ways, it does indeed have). The lighting cinematography by Larry Smith is perfect, choosing to go for a somewhat grainy, washed out look that only makes the often-seen colorful decorations and Christmas lights all the more powerful. Finally, the production design by Les Tomkins and Roy Walker, is sumptuous and wholeheartedly Kubrickesque (similar in look to "The Shining"), as they have taken the nearly impossible job of creating New York City on a London soundstage. Occasionally the sets look just as they are, sets, but that odd mixture of NYC realism and artificiality only compliments what the film is about.

So, what is "Eyes Wide Shut" about, anyway? No, I don't mean the clearcut story, but what exactly lies underneath that? One of the joys of Kubrick was in the way that he respected and treated his audience like thinking adults, to draw their own conclusion to many of his films' occurences. To me, "Eyes Wide Shut" is a morality tale in the classic tradition, about a married couple who, over a couple days, discover more about each other--their dreams, feelings, and fears--than they ever thought they would in a lifetime, and through that, must come to terms with their relationship, as well as their own decisions as individuals, before they can decide what will happen next. Truly unlike Kubrick, however, "Eyes Wide Shut" concludes with a marvelous, powerful last scene that ends on a relatively hopeful, positive note. As the screen went to black and the words, "Directed by Stanley Kubrick," filled the screen, the masterful, final chapter in Kubrick's highly-respected, forever-remembered life came to a close.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman