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.
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.
The orgy, with its incense, chants and grim solemnity, is an unfortunate hoot, and it's also surprisingly tame — no children or donkeys to jolt us out of the feeling that we've been here before. (And, from Story of the Eye to Story of O , we have.) It's understandable that Kubrick didn't want to hoist people up in slings, if for no other reason than it's already been done. But it's unclear exactly what the sight of all this discreetly writhing flesh is supposed to mean, either for us or for Bill. In the novella, the orgy stands in for Fridolin's own roiling unconscious — a bacchanalia of all his fears and desires, especially about his wife. Here, the orgy comes off more like an outtake from an old Madonna video; it's hands-down the worst scene in the film. From this point on, as Bill ploddingly retraces most of the same steps as his 1920s counterpart, Eyes Wide Shut begins to sound less like an engagingly cryptic title and more like a critical evaluation. It doesn't help that the film's strongest actor has gone missing. Cruise is a natural performer, but he's no match for Kidman, and his fame makes for its own sort of distraction: Never once do you forget that you're watching one of the world's most famous stars going through his paces. Although she's not given enough to do after the film's first act, Kidman trumps Cruise's celebrity with the force of her talent. She's a technically brilliant actress who can give her lines nuances not always evident in the script, and more than once she seems to be contradicting Alice's words with her phrasing. There's a bit of voodoo in the way she drunkenly slurs the word hus-band to her would-be seducer at the Christmas party.
THERE'S CUNNING BEHIND KIDMAN'S beauty, and a tingly predatory intensity. (She has a wonderful dirty little smile.) She suggests a far more complex character than the one summoned up by Kubrick and his screenwriting partner, Frederic Raphael. It's not surprising that the movie suffers whenever she's not on screen, but you have to wonder why Kubrick didn't notice during the course of his widely publicized, yearlong shoot. Alice's fade into the background isn't merely a drag, it's at the heart of the film's larger, more intractable problem. Seven decades have lapsed between the time the book was written and the movie was shot, and while everyone from Freud himself to Simone de Beauvoir to Dr. Ruth has chimed in on the topic, there's something weirdly antediluvian about the film's vision of female sexuality. Kubrick obviously gets a kick out of parading around so much tits and ass, but he doesn't seem remotely interested in Freud's great (unanswered) question, “What do women want?” Schnitzler apparently had something of a clue. According to historian Peter Gay, the writer kept an impressive log not only of his copious sexual conquests, but also of the number of orgasms he'd achieved, along with those he hoped he'd given his female partners.
The price of Kubrick and Raphael's stubborn fidelity to the content if not the form of the novella is deadly: The movie feels as if it were made by a couple of old farts who haven't yet figured out that if Alice were spending this much time alone she'd probably be spending it in the company of her shower massage. Kubrick doesn't put out in Eyes Wide Shut, and it's hard to know why. Although he was contracted to deliver a movie to Warner Bros. that could secure an R rating, there's a restraint, almost a demureness to the sex that has nothing to do with the MPAA. The much-discussed orgy scene is about 80 seconds long, and the only shocking thing about it is just how banal it all seems. As Bill roams around the mansion he sees men pumping women splayed across tables, a woman bouncing mechanically on some guy's lap, a couple of other women feigning oral sex, but with their masks on, not a tongue in sight. Everyone is banging to the same beat (no one at this party seems to have much rhythm), but it's fucking without the heavy breathing, without the sweat, without the heat. We can't see Bill's face, tell if he's getting turned on (or off) because of the mask, and his body language is similarly unreadable, obscured by his cape. The rest of the partygoers are just as subdued. Most stand motionless around the copulating pairs, their masks doing the emoting for them, while in one room, some of the would-be libertines dance listlessly to the ironic strains of “Strangers in the Night.”
When a woman asks the too-good doctor if he's enjoying himself, he answers that he's had a very interesting look around. And however modest, Bill's roundabout is unquestionably more titillating than the one most Americans will see: In order to secure an R, Warner Bros. has digitally obscured all of the film's simulated sex scenes by inserting sham revelers in front of the offending tableaux. (At the Los Angeles press screenings, where uncensored prints were shown alongside the sanitized footage, Kubrick's longtime executive producer and brother-in-law, Jan Harlan, assured the audience that the director himself had conceived of this solution.) These digitized fig leaves are more than just embarrassingly juvenile, they're corrupt. The hypocrisy and cowardice of both the MPAA and Warner Bros. are contemptible but expected, and it goes without saying that there's something seriously wrong with a culture that endorses the sight of a man's brains being splattered across the screen, as in Kubrick's own Full Metal Jacket, but needs to blot out the image of two people engaged in a vigorous fuck. But what's specifically terrible here is what the obfuscation does for Eyes Wide Shut.
At the heart of the story, in both the original and the adaptation, is the sudden emergence of a violent undercurrent (what Schnitzler called “dangerous whirlpools”) in the couple's sexual life together. The novella essentially concerns the husband's jealousy and a subsequent adventure — real or dreamed — fraught with sex, peril, even death, an adventure that unfolds like textbook Freud. Alice remains at home, but she's also all the women on Bill's journey underground, beautiful women whose sexual appetites are hinted at in his wife's own sly, sideways glance. The unspoken threat in that glance should cast a spell over everything that follows, perfuming the air with fear and desire. But after the dreamy high of the opening Christmas party, Kubrick's film settles into a flat-footed monotone that is at odds with the story he's telling. There's little here of the director's famously heightened realism, those nervously pitched altered states that characterize films such as The Shining, which so effortlessly, and scarily, slips between reality and fantasy, and makes each equally unsettling. When the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut, which is meant to be the apotheosis of Bill's experience, is stripped of its erotic violence and pumping automatons, the scene itself becomes coy, decorative and all but meaningless. The dreamer is left without his dream.
Schnitzler steadfastly refused to explain whether Fridolin's adventures are actual or the feverish payoff of his paranoid jealousy; he blurs dream and reality because it finally doesn't matter if the doctor went to the mansion. What matters are the waking hours to come, in the couple's newly arrived-at morality and their deepened understanding of each other. Kubrick, a virtuoso of glittering surfaces, never bothered to dig deep, to excavate meaning. That's why his greatest films — Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, Barry Lyndon — are seamless fusions of content and form. Their form is their content. That's also why it's a fundamental cliché to call his characters cold and inhuman: Of course they're cold and inhuman — at least the ones we love most — that's what makes them so wretchedly human, and recognizable. Kubrick wasn't interested in showing the why of people. There may be psychological explanations for Humbert Humbert, Jack Torrance and Barry Lyndon (or HAL 9000), but in Kubrick's rendering, their motivations remain opaque. They are exactly what they seem, no more and no less. Bill and Alice, in contrast, are neither cold nor inhuman, but they are — at least in their original incarnations — the sort of characters that Kubrick never seemed intuitively or intellectually turned on by: dreamers. Perhaps there was no place in his world for anyone else's imagination. In the universe of genius, there is sometimes little room for company.
EYES WIDE SHUT | Produced and directed by STANLEY KUBRICK | Written by KUBRICK and FREDERIC RAPHAEL | Based on the novella Traumnovelle by ARTHUR SCHNITZLER | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide