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Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut

Wednesday, Jul 14 1999
DID BEING CALLED A GENIUS RUIN STANLEY KUBRICK? As anyone within reach of a Time magazine now knows, the director, who was widely considered to be the world's greatest, died just days after his latest film was shown to its stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and the two presidents of Warner Bros., which has released all of Kubrick's movies since A Clockwork Orange in 1971. Three weeks before Eyes Wide Shut was due to open, Time critic Richard Schickel had gone so far as to declare the film Kubrick's "final masterpiece," throwing down a gauntlet that has been picked up by critics just itching to render a different verdict. It's the same as it ever was. American critics have always thrilled to building Kubrick up or tearing him down, and that's part of why it's too bad that his last film is already being embalmed in genius, much as he had been for much of his career. It was never enough for Kubrick to be a great filmmaker; he had to be a genius, the visionary behind a series of meticulously produced spectacles that only the most rarefied moviegoer (or, in the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the most stoned) could appreciate. Even before he died, he had to be immortal.

What then of Kubrick's final opus, his 10-years-in-the-making dirty movie? It's good -- when it's not adrift in an absence of meaning. The film is a surprisingly close adaptation of Traumnovelle (which translates as Dream Story), a musty morality tale written in 1926 by the Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler about a married couple whose life is disrupted by a series of fantastic scenarios. Schnitzler was a former medical doctor, as well as a Freud devotee, and to an extent his novella reads like the dreams in one of the psychoanalyst's case studies, but before the hard work has started. Fridolin, a young doctor, and his wife, Albertina, attend a masquerade ball at which each is propositioned. Wife and husband both decline the advances, but are deeply shaken. The following night, still heady from this interlude of public foreplay, they both confess to having been attracted to other people, then promise to divulge all future temptations. What follows is a hallucination of sexual panic and animal desire, topped off with some pretty corny and unconvincing posturing about marriage.

Kubrick's interest in this material was decades old; in 1971 Warner Bros. even issued a press release announcing Traumnovelle as the director's next project. This fixation dovetailed neatly with another project that never saw the light, Terry Southern's Blue Movie, the 1970 novel about a celebrated film director named Boris Adrian who decides to make a big-budget porn movie with Hollywood stars. (Southern was Kubrick's writing partner on Dr. Strangelove.) Nearly 30 years later, Kubrick finally got to make his blue movie, starring one of the world's most famous actors and his talented wife as Dr. William Harford and his wife, Alice. Now transposed to contemporary New York City, the sleek young couple lives in comfortable, genteel clutter in one of those sprawling apartments that bank Central Park West. They share a young daughter, Helena, and a convincingly lazy intimacy. When the film opens, Bill and Alice are primping for a lavish Christmas party hosted by one of the doctor's moneyed clients, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), a magnate whose careless manner contrasts vividly with the opulence of his surroundings and the aides who always seem to be quietly flanking him.

As with other of the director's films, there's no cinematography credit for Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick shot his first movies and was famously hands-on with the camera), just as there's no credit for second-unit director, though it seems fairly obvious that someone besides Kubrick was directing the film's few New York locations. Larry Smith is identified as the "lighting cameraman," and it's safe to say that he lights a very beautiful movie. The Christmas party has the dazzle of a fairy tale -- when Bill and Alice dance together it's in a nimbus of diffused, shimmering light. (The film's grainy pointillism is a sumptuous change of pace from Hollywood's appetite for no-grain gloss.) When Alice begins dancing with another man at the party, a Hungarian who steals her champagne and kisses her hand as if he were nibbling on a canapé, she seems lit from within.

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There's a clear energy and focus in these early scenes, and the slightest tremor of menace. The camera prowls the party like a panther, and Kubrick's cutting reminds you again just how much he did in the editing room. The film's very first shot is a peep-show glance at Alice letting a dress drop off her naked body, and the next shot finds Bill striding purposely toward the camera -- a dynamic that pretty much defines their roles throughout. For the remainder of the opening, through the party and into the next day, Kubrick shifts between Alice and Bill, building a tension between the two you can almost feel. The second night, the night of the couple's confession, they get high on some grass, and on a dime the atmosphere turns from flirting to fighting, and the film's attention narrows on Bill. Alice accusingly, and teasingly, announces to her husband, "If you men only knew." Bill leaves, launched on a two-night bender that will find him drifting from woman to woman, from hysteric to tart, until he finally lands in a baroque mansion, the backdrop for a quasi-religious orgy featuring some strategically choreographed humping.

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