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Movie Review

'Eyes' That See Too Much

A meditation on sex and death, Stanley Kubrick's last film is more a mood piece than a movie.

July 16, 1999|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

The combination of sex and death (have I got your attention yet?) has always tantalized artists, especially as they age, and, if "Eyes Wide Shut" is any indication, most especially Stanley Kubrick.

Far from the hot date-night movie the racy Warner Bros. campaign would have you expect, Kubrick's last film, completed just before his death and starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as a married couple who stumble onto the edge of a terrible moral abyss, is a strange, somber and troubling meditation on jealousy, obsession and (yes) sex and death. More European than Hollywood in tone, it's half brilliant, half banal, but always the work of a master director whose output has gotten increasingly distant and self-involved over the years--and not always to our benefit.

After turning out seven features in the first decade of his career, Kubrick directed only six more times in his final 35 years, and his last films, including costume drama "Barry Lyndon," horror film "The Shining" and war movie "Full Metal Jacket," have all been determinedly off the beat of genre expectations.

Written by Kubrick and veteran screenwriter Frederic Raphael ("Darling," "Two for the Road"), "Eyes Wide Shut" follows that pattern and, like those predecessors, makes its strongest impression not with dialogue but with virtuoso visual work. Despite all the time spent on the script (the numberless rewrites and rehearsals began three years ago), whenever the film has to depend on the written word for its effects the results tend to be unconvincing.

But when Kubrick, as in the dark and unnerving film-within-a-film orgy scene that is "Eyes Wide Shut's" centerpiece, cuts words to a minimum and uses pure cinematic technique to go to the core of his emotions, what results has the powerful, lacerating impact of inescapable nightmare. This is finally a film that is better at mood than substance, that has its strongest hold on you when it's making the least amount of sense.

"Eyes Wide Shut" is based on "Traumnovelle" (Dream Story), a 1926 novella byArthur Schnitzler, a Viennese writer who was influenced by Sigmund Freud, his contemporary. Like Clint Eastwood holding onto "Unforgiven" until the time was right, Kubrick has controlled the rights to the work for decades. And it's a mark of how much the novella touched him, how much of a soul mate he felt he'd found in Schnitzler (whose David Hare-adapted "The Blue Room" starred Kidman on the London and New York stage) that he's kept all "Traumnovelle's" major plot points intact and even been faithful in smaller areas, like the number of off-screen children a subsidiary character has.

What Kubrick must have connected with, aside from the novella's elusiveness, lack of structural rigor and a belief that "no dream is entirely a dream," was its air of sexual yearning and imminent death. He and Raphael moved the plot to contemporary Manhattan but kept the novella's sense of sexual experience that is just out of reach as well as the possibility that the happy life of Dr. William Harford (Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Kidman), is no more than a thin, "Matrix"-like veneer over a caldron of fear and desire.

Ever the showman, Kubrick starts "Eyes Wide Shut" with a startling shot of a completely nude Alice dropping her dress to the bathroom floor as she prepares for a black-tie holiday party given by one of her husband's patients, New York power broker Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack, who inherited the part when Harvey Keitel left the project).

At the ball itself (shot by Kubrick and his lighting cameraman Larry Smith in sweeping tracking shots), both Alice and her husband, married nine years with a 7-year-old daughter, engage in desultory flirtation. He chats with a pair of models (is no New York party complete without them?), she with Sandor Szavost (Sky Dumont), the most unctuous of Hungarian Lotharios, who tells her, oozing ersatz worldliness, "Don't you think one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties."

Harford, meanwhile, has separate adventures. He reconnects with an old medical school classmate, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field of "Ruby in Paradise"), now a piano player for hire. And he's called upstairs to Ziegler's private apartment, where a beautiful nude woman has had a bad reaction to an unwise combination of drugs and nearly died.

Later, in a party post-mortem held under the influence of marijuana, Alice and her husband get into an argument and she ends up relating something she experienced during a recent vacation taken together in Cape Cod. She saw a handsome naval officer in the lobby, and though they never so much as exchanged a word, Alice knew that if he'd wanted her she would have sacrificed everything, even her marriage if necessary, for those fleeting moments of passion.

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