Friday, 4 July 2008

Eyes Wide Shut (1999, UK/US, Stanley Kubrick)

Possibly the most divisive film of Kubrick's entire career, 'Eyes Wide Shut' opened to fervent admiration in some critical circles and utter bewilderment in others. My opinion is that it's certainly a masterpiece, albeit it a flawed one, and comparable with many of his most acclaimed films. Even though I'm a huge admirer of Kubrick's work, I'd like to think I'm pretty objective about it at the same time. For instance, I'm not that keen on the two films that preceded it; 'The Shining' and 'Full Metal Jacket'. To use a cliched and well worn phrase, 'Eyes Wide Shut' was a return to form for the director who passed away almost as soon as the final cut was completed.

Using 'Traumnovelle' by Arthur Schnitzler as his template, Kubrick and fellow screenwriter Frederic Raphael, create a hypnotic and dizzying account of a marriage threatened by jealousy and insecurity. Bill (Tom Cruise) and Alice (Nicole Kidman) are a married couple with a young daughter with superficially the perfect lifestyle - he's a successful GP, they live in an expensive apartment, attend swanky parties hosted by Bill's clients. One such party starts a chain of events that force the couple to explore their marriage with great insight. They flirt with others, though avoid actually infidelity itself. This is the crucial moment in the film. The following night, Alice, whilst stoned and angry at what she perceived was Bill's attempts to commit infidelity with two young models, reveals her own imagined infidelity and confesses her own desires for other men in the past.

Bill then retreats into a sexual odyssey of his own where temptation and attraction awaits at every turn, which culminates in the infamous orgy sequence at an out of town mansion. It's this scene which is perhaps the source of contention of those critics who reviewed the film negatively - it's incredibly unerotic despite all the nudity and sexual acts being performed and written off as the work of a lecherous old man. Still, what was one to expect from Kubrick whose films always defined human relationships in such as cold and clinical way? I think that sequence actually works given that the film as a whole is so artificial, existing in a world between dreams and consciousness, where one more or less cannot tell what is real and what isn't. The whole setting of the film is totally false - a turn of the 20th century Vienna set novel is updated to what looks like 1970s New York but was filmed in various locations in London and the Home Counties. 'Eyes Wide Shut' is a film that exists outside of time and place. If one wants realism from films, try something else! Then there's the use of colour to increase the dreamlike status of the film - rooms painted out in deep, rich reds, whilst the lighting through windows is always a cool blue.

The perverse marketing of the film is another triumph for me. It was certainly a long shoot, and because of such, rumours circulated about the film and what it comprised. The trailer featured Cruise and Kidman naked in each other's embrace, which was pretty much the only moments we see the couple undressed or intimate. Kubrick always cherished the idea of making an "adult" film with famous actors and this example provides that to an extent though is quite misleading (in a good sense) about what it wants to achieve, though that brings us back to the cold and clinical orgy sequence that the films detractors loathe.

Now the dust has settled and the hype of the film's release has long since passed, 'Eyes Wide Shut' demands critical rehabilitation. The best Kubrick film since 'Barry Lyndon', a quarter of a century before it (though to be fair, there's only two films between them), it shows the late director at least on a technical perspective on top of his game, with meticulous attention to detail and superb tracking shots, such as during the first party. Whether the film was in part responsible for end of the Cruise-Kidman marriage, who can say, though it must have taken its toll - Kubrick manages to get better performances out of them than you'd expect, and Kubrick hardly has the reputation of being an actors' director. And to those who often accuse Kubrick's films of lacking emotional impact, then it's not true here, as 'Eyes Wide Shut' is a thorough examination of marriage, desires and emotions, and whilst one has to acknowledge a few faults (some varying performances from supporting actors and so on), it's more or less perfect. 4.5/5

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