Warner Bros. // 1999 // 159 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // November 12th, 2007
"Maybe I think we should be...grateful that we've managed to survive through all of our adventures, whether they were real or only a dream."
Even before its release, Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut was surrounded by controversy and hype. It had been more than a decade since 1987's Full Metal Jacket, and people were excited by the director's new project -- especially considering it was a film about sex starring Hollywood heavies Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Though Kubrick had a well-deserved reputation for taking his time making movies, he had never been this long between releases. When the great director died unexpectedly, shortly after finishing the final edit, Eyes Wide Shut hit theaters with the added burden of being not only the latest, but the last, Stanley Kubrick film.
Predictably, the sky-high expectations of many fans and critics weren't met, and the film found itself near the bottom of lists of Kubrick's best work. Now, nearly a decade later, with this new DVD -- one of six recently released Kubrick special editions -- we have the opportunity to reevaluate the film apart from the circumstances surrounding its release. How does it fare as a final work? Is it a Turandot, or more of a Wagons East!?
At a client's Christmas party, New York doctor Bill Harford (Tom Cruise, War of the Worlds) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman,Cold Mountain) are each propositioned: she by a handsome Hungarian; he by two young models. At home, and under the influence, Alice questions her husband about their party encounters. His lack of jealousy, along with his assertion that women don't think about sex the way men do, elicits from her a confession about a young naval officer she encountered briefly during a family vacation; though he was nothing more than a fantasy, she admits that, had he asked, she would have risked losing her husband and daughter to sleep with him.
Bill, called away suddenly on a medical matter, is so unable to get the image of his wife and this other man out of his head that he spends the rest of the night trying to exact a kind of sexual revenge by seeking an encounter of his own. His search takes him down a dangerous road, past streetwalkers and deviants, to a secret ritual held at a mysterious mansion from which he barely escapes.
Racked with guilt over what harm his actions may have caused, and tormented still by his wife's fantasies and dreams, he sets out to discover the truth about what happened the night before. In the end, he learns that while some things may not be as dangerous as they appear, others are far more deadly.
Based on Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle, Eyes Wide Shut deals with the dangerous side of sexual and emotional intimacy. Alice and Bill both understand and exploit the fact that when someone is deeply loved, they have the power to inflict great pain. Alice, hurt by Bill's taking her for granted, decides, in a pot-smoke haze, to hurt her husband by confessing a seriously considered infidelity. He, in turn, decides to punish his wife (perhaps using her confession as a license to act on pre-existing desires) by having an actual affair.
Taking inspiration from the early 20th-Century Vienna of Schnitzler's novella, Kubrick's film is deeply psychological. His characters give themselves over to their inner desires -- with dreams so vivid they hold equal weight with real experience. As is essentially true when it comes to sex, the line between thought and action is all but meaningless. The film asks the question: which is worse -- to vividly and cruelly fantasize about rampant sexual infidelity -- or to actively seek extramarital sex but not go through with it? Alice -- though her confession sets the plot in motion -- recognizes the complexity of her desires; Bill, on the other hand, fails in his myopic quest only through random intervention.
The events of the film take place over three nights and two days, around Christmas. From the opening shot of Nicole Kidman wriggling out of a black dress, Kubrick establishes the audience as voyeur, playing with film's ability to blur lines between what's real and what is not. Even the "reality" of Bill's nocturnal journey is called into question later in the film. It's not until he is forced to face what he has done that the dream veil is lifted and the hard work of reconciliation begins.
Though the Hungarian's question to Alice, "Don't you one think of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties?" comes across as sleazy, over the course of the film we realize the truth in it. Deception need not cover up an affair; it can also involve hiding from our partner the thoughts and desires that might hurt them most. The last word of the last line in the film -- of the four-letter variety, spoken by Alice -- captures the duality of sex: even as it represents the closest two humans can get, there's a dangerous primality which we can only hope to contain.
Kubrick films are often criticized for being "cold," a byproduct of his deliberate, carefully planned approach to filmmaking. When Eyes Wide Shut was released, many critics complained that it moved too slowly. Kubrick wanted the film to feel dreamlike, and he succeeds at the expense of naturalism and spontaneity. As an artistic choice, though, the languid pace works to create a surreal feeling precisely because every detail has been planned in advance: The ever-present holiday lights suffuse scenes with a heavenly glow, reinforcing the film's dreamy style, while bluer-than-reality moonlight plays against the warm oranges of New York apartment interiors. It was beautiful in the theaters, and it's beautiful on DVD. As an example of Kubrick's mastery of light, color, and composition, this vivid new transfer is a virtuoso performance. The film's distinctive music -- from the opening Shostakovitch waltz to the haunting minimalist piano of György Ligeti's "Musica Ricerata" to Chris Isaak's "Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing" -- supports the visuals with a crisp surround mix that, while it doesn't do much besides the occasional directional effect, uses a rich dynamic range.
The special features, relegated to Disc Two, are mostly interesting, though they deal less with Eyes Wide Shut than Kubrick's career as a whole and the impact of his death. The Channel Four documentary The Last Movie collects interviews with the writers, actors, and filmmakers he worked with, and his family. Cruise and Kidman dominate the actor interviews, but it's the recollections of his wife, Christiane, and their two daughters, that humanize Kubrick, balancing the stories of his imposing behind-the-camera personality told by those who, though they respected the director, felt slighted by him in their working relationships. The presiding feeling, though, is positive. As a memorial to Kubrick the artist, husband, and father, it's fairly good, marred only by occasionally cheesy music and awkward animated transitions.
There's a good deal of overlap between The Last Movie and the nearly 30 minutes of interviews provided as a separate feature -- basically just extended versions of the Cruise, Kidman, and Spielberg footage used in the Channel Four piece. Though there are a few interesting tidbits that weren't in the documentary, a lot of material is repeated. Spielberg's recollections are the most interesting; it's too bad he only gets eight minutes to talk.
The best of the features is the documentary Lost Kubrick: The Unfinished Films of Stanley Kubrick, narrated by A Clockwork Orange's Malcolm McDowell. It explores several projects the director worked on but never got to finish: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which he handed over to longtime friend and fellow director Steven Spielberg; Napoleon, a sweeping epic with Jack Nicholson pegged to play the title role; and The Aryan Papers, a Holocaust film. In all three cases, the director threw himself into the project, spending years on research and writing, only to have them fall apart because of budget, waning studio interest, or poor timing (during the time it took to develop the Napoleon and holocaust projects, films came out that were a bit too similar -- Waterloo and Schindler's List).
Rounding out the features is Kubrick's taped speech accepting the Directors Guild of America D.W. Griffith Award in 1998 (with an introduction by Jack Nichlson), a theatrical trailer, and a couple of TV spots.
As good as it is, Eyes Wide Shut is hardly Kubrick's best film. The dream style, though beautiful, occasionally robs scenes of deeper meaning. Like real dreams, not everything that's said makes sense; and while the throwaway lines and unnatural exchanges arguably add to the overall experience, they often create a barrier between the audience and what's happening onscreen.
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman have proven -- in films such as Magnolia and The Hours -- that they can act. In Eyes Wide Shut they do a fine job, though I can't help but wonder whether another pair could have done better. It's like the feeling I get from Martin Scorcese's repeat casting of Leonardo DiCaprio. Great directors can coax great performances out of most anybody (and Cruise and Kidman are better than "most anybody"), but at times their performances feel flat -- when Cruise shares the screen with Sydney Pollack (The Player), for example, the mismatch is apparent.
It's worth noting that the DVD case says the set includes both the rated and unrated versions of the film. In fact, it has only the unrated cut -- available for the first time in the U.S. It's a blessing in disguise, really. I can't think of any reason to prefer the rated cut -- in which cloaked figures were digitally inserted into the sex ritual scenes to obscure the "action" and net an R rating -- since this version is the way Kubrick wanted it. A not-so-mild annoyance for those who have been following this release, however, is the absence of the planned Sydney Pollack commentary track.
Though it lacks the sweeping scope of Kubrick's earlier work, Eyes Wide Shut is a beautiful, personal work that unfortunately got overshadowed by its director's death and the high profile of its then-married costars. The film's slow, dreamy style, and its focus on psychology and the nebulous (and dangerous) boundaries of sexual intimacy, may not be for everyone, but it's hardly the misstep some critics would have you believe. Most any film made by a great director, even if it's merely "good," is better than most.
Fans of Eyes Wide Shut, and of Kubrick, should buy with confidence. Not only is it finally available with the mansion sex sequence as the director intended, the film looks beautiful. The extras may not be all that Warner suggested they'd be (and it would have been nice to have more Spielberg and less Cruise/Kidman), but what is included does an admirable job of wrapping up Kubrick's amazing career.
The only crime is having lost one of the great directors. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2007 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 159 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* "The Last Movie: Stanley Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut"
* "Lost Kubrick: The Unfinished Films of Stanley Kubrick"
* Interview Gallery Featuring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, and Steven Spielberg
* Kubrick's 1998 Directors Guild of America D.W. Griffith Award Acceptance Speech
* Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots
* Official Site