by Tony Dayoub
Nine years after Stanley Kubrick left us with his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, I am surprised by my view on it. Where most of Kubrick's films are hard to appreciate upon their initial release, this one wasn't, at least for me. A decade later, the esteem lavished on any of his films usually grows. But, in my opinion, this one's hasn't. As anyone familiar with Kubrick's work knows, his films were (and still are) more often ahead, not behind the times, in their themes and state of the art of cinema. And while I initially blamed the publicity angle used to promote it, and the censorship inflicted on it, for most of its denigration, I now wonder why almost a decade later, with those problems now non-existent, the film seems out-of-step.
The VHS age had arrived in the mid to late eighties, so by the time the nineties were just about over, it was no surprise that the erotic film genre had benefited the most during that period. Americans no longer needed to be ashamed of enjoying sexually-charged cinema. They could just rent a movie and watch it at home. That movie came in many forms depending on your proclivities. The most obvious was pornography, but if you were too timid to try that out, you could rent a direct-to-video softcore film such as the ones seen on late-night Cinemax channels. For more intellectual value you could obtain an NC17-rated film, like Henry and June. More mainstream viewers could rent a movie that used to be rated R in theaters, but would have added sex scenes in a newly released unrated version, like Basic Instinct. The possibilities were limitless, and the market followed suit to a degree where it became oversaturated with such films: Wild Orchid, Showgirls, Zandalee, etc.
Back in 1999, as the hype was building regarding Stanley Kubrick's collaboration with then-husband-and-wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut's marketing contributed to all kinds of notions being thrown around, some correct and some not. The ultimate gladiator film is Spartacus, a Kubrick film. The ultimate sci-fi film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a Kubrick film. As we go forward it becomes a little more arguable. The ultimate horror movie is regarded by many to be Kubrick's The Shining. And Full Metal Jacket has just as much right to be regarded as the ultimate Vietnam movie as Platoon. So when the trailer is released for Kubrick's latest film, and it features the hottest celebrity couple in the planet nude in front of a mirror, about to engage in lovemaking... was it any surprise that people were going to misconstrue this as Kubrick's take on the erotic film. Rumors circulated. Cruise and Kidman's relationship was straining under Kubrick's pressure to make Eyes Wide Shut the ultimate sex movie. The scenes were so pornographic the movie would have to be gutted to make it work for American cinema.
At the time, having already been a student of Kubrick's films, I wasn't surprised at the final result. Eyes Wide Shut is essentially a detached examination of jealousy and the dangers inherent in giving in to your sexual impulses in modern society. It is examined through the eyes of an upper-class WASP couple, Dr. Bill Harford (Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Kidman). Her name is a clue that much of the movie takes place in a languid dreamlike wonderland after Dr. Bill falls through the jealousy rabbit-hole. The world is one in which Dr. Bill can ask for a beer at a bar, and doesn't have to specify the brand. He can show his medical license and get instant access to some of the most exclusive information. Dr. Bill learns valuable lessons as he is repeatedly confronted with moral tests in this realm: Don't get involved with your patients (Marie Richardson) or you might end up with an unstable stalker. Don't have sex with a hooker (Vinessa Shaw) or you might fall prey to AIDS. Don't get involved with a minor (Leelee Sobieski) or you might be taken advantage of by her pimp (Rade Serbedzija). Don't visit a strange ritualistic costume party or you endanger the life of a call girl (Julienne Davis) trying to save your life.
In the theatrical release, there was plenty of nudity, not much sex, and the sex that did appear in the film was conveniently blocked by digital images of onlookers to preserve the story and allow the film to play in American theaters. The music in the film is beautiful and foreboding. The cinematography is impeccable. Sydney Pollack's performance as Dr. Bill's friend, Victor, is exemplary, especially considering the film was originally shot with Harvey Keitel in the role, before being replaced after he couldn't return for reshoots. And Nicole Kidman is stunning as the coy Alice who, consciously or not, uses jealousy to manipulate her husband.
The DVD has been improved by the fact that it is the first release of the film in widescreen. The images are presented beautifully as Kubrick intended. The DVD does contain a few interesting documentaries on Kubrick, and how this was to be his final film. You gain great insight into the family man he was. And theirs an interesting survey of his unproduced film ideas. Interviews with Cruise, Kidman, and Steven Spielberg are holdovers from the last DVD version of the film. While reverential, these interviews do capture the filmmaker's sensibility.
Most importantly, nine years later, the DVD allows for a fresh viewing. There is no marketing to mislead one into thinking this is a sex romp. The digital images used to censor the film have been eliminated to display Kubrick's intended shots. And the film now seems almost quaint. The lesson that Dr. Bill learns that marriage may be less exciting but at least it is safe, seems trite. The sexual peccadilloes he gets involved in seem naive, especially considering the setpieces are being proposed by a reclusive, happily-married, and elderly film director who lives on an estate in England.
What was once one of the film's selling points has now become one of its liabilities. Tom Cruise's performance seems flat and false. His line readings feel fake. Much of this may be attributed to the backlash he is now contending with in his career and personal life. It is hard to accept the couple in the film will work things out when we know that in life they broke up. The image of Cruise as a doctor is ironic given his outlandish medical claims in regards to the pitfalls of pharmaceuticals and psychological treatment he has discussed in the press recently.
This film should be revisited in the future to see if this assessment of Cruise still holds up if the spotlight on the actor's personal life ever dims.
This entry first appeared on Blogcritics on 4/23/2008.