Posted: 08/18/1999

 

Eyes Wide Shut

(1999)

by Jon Bastian



Not an easy film, but the rewards are worth it - if only you’re willing to keep your mind wide open.


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But first, these words from our sponsors:

“In the first 30 seconds, this film gets off on the wrong foot and … it never recovers. Because this is a major effort by an important director, it is a major disappointment…” (The New Republic)

“A marvelously executed, sensationalist, confused and finally corrupt piece of pop trivia, signifying nothing.” (New York Times)

Yep, that’s pretty much what the critics have said about Eyes Wide Shut. Except that, the first quote above is from a review of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the second is from a review of “A Clockwork Orange.” Everyone changes their tune eventually. I have no doubt that in ten years, Eyes Wide Shut will be on everyone’s “Best Film of the 90s” list or somesuch. The critics will be kissing Mr. Kubrick’s cold, dead ass, and this movie will join its rightful place in the canon, alongside the aforementioned films and every other Kubrick masterpiece that was initially slammed and later revered. That seems to be the general pattern for Kubrick, and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s because he was always ahead of his time. Perhaps it’s because, as he put it himself, he lets his movies speak for themselves. More than anything else, Mr. Kubrick was a meticulous craftsman, with a method to his madness. Nothing in any frame of any of his films is ever an accident.

Additionally, Kubrick’s films always work on several levels at once and deal with multiple issues. Quite often, when you think you’ve finally gotten it, a repeated viewing shows a completely different interpretation or another level of story that was never there before. Eyes Wide Shut takes place on so many levels at once that it’s impossible to catch them all the first or second time through. It’s interesting that a read of the script reveals a very simple, straightforward story. On the page, it’s apparently flat and evident. On screen, this tale has more facets than Liz Taylor’s last six wedding rings.

Beyond all this, Kubrick was a brilliant adapter who had an amazing knack for staying faithful to the source while making it filmic. (Fans of Stephen King, please shut up now. You got your “faithful” adaptation as a TV movie recently, and it was crap.) Anyway, the source for Eyes Wide Shut is Arthur Schnitzler’s “Traumnovelle” or Dream Story, and the movie follows the plot of that work point for point. Where it deviates is in the setting, updating it from 1930s Vienna to modern Manhattan. Surprisingly, though, the attitudes of the characters are not updated—because they didn’t need to be. I think this was a small part of Kubrick’s point in selecting this story. For all of our technical advancements, people haven’t changed since Sigmund Freud was analyzing hysterical hausfraus. Jealousy, infidelity and injuries both real and imagined are still part of the endless games people play. Spouses may claim to want to hear the complete truth from each other, but they never promise not to be hurt by it. Even at the turn of the next millennium, the question, “Honey, do these pants make my ass look fat?” will still be just as unanswerable.

In Eyes Wide Shut, it’s the telling of the truth that starts all the trouble. Bill and Alice Harford (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) attend a party thrown by one of Bill’s patients. They each have innocent, fleeting flirtations. Neither partner acts on the opportunity, but that doesn’t stop Alice from throwing jealous accusations later on. Bill finds himself on the losing end of an argument—the more honest he is, the more trouble he digs himself into. Finally, Alice smacks him with a humdinger, confessing to a moment when she might have abandoned husband and child to run off with a Naval Officer she saw in a hotel lobby. Bill’s reaction to this unpleasant truth propels him through the rest of the movie, into stranger and stranger circumstances. He takes a tour, in the real world, of the realm his wife inhabits in dream and fantasy. The question is, which of them is being the less faithful? And, who commits the more heinous insult to the marriage—the partner who fantasizes about throwing it away, or the partner who toys with infidelity but always comes back?

As Bill moves further into a strange netherworld, his jealousy twists him into all kinds of petty paranoia. Here, Kubrick creates another level to the film, where there are probably several explanations for everything, but his hero always grasps at the wrong one. An event could be completely innocent or entirely sinister. It’s only the strife at home that makes the latter explanation more palatable—to Bill.

Perhaps Kubrick is saying that jealousy and insecurity are the root of all evil. At the same time, in adapting a supposedly “dated” tale, the implicit message is that the problems we have now are nothing new. I may be making a stretch Kubrick never intended, but Bill seems to do a lot of projecting in the movie, and the less secure he’s feeling in his marriage, the uglier the world gets. That’s what’s been happening in the world lately. Believe it or not, crime is down and there have always been about the same number of armed lunatics shooting up crowds. A healthy society would try to figure out why. A sick society—a society that’s projecting its illness outward—will try to blame everyone else, will see conspiracies where there are none and will eventually tear itself apart over nothing. Okay, okay; this idea is nowhere explicit in Eyes Wide Shut, but again, such is the power of a Kubrick film that it makes you think.

Ultimately, that was the downfall of the movie. No one wants to think while watching a film. Note that I don’t add “any more,” because I think this has always been a problem. If anything, it’s less of a problem now than it was in, say, the 40s or 50s, when ambiguity and irony did not exist. But it’s still a problem. It’s even a problem in film criticism, because this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you what you should think of this film. Okay, you should think it’s brilliant. But, in reality, a lot of you will think it’s a crashing, pretentious bore. Some of you will appreciate that it’s a well-crafted work of art, but find it cold and uninvolving. A few of us will think it’s brilliant. Ten years from now, a lot of people will say it’s brilliant, regardless of how they really feel.

I wish it could be more people now, but I know it’s not the case. Eyes Wide Shut isn’t an easy film to sit through, because it requires complete attention, and it requires the audience to fill in the gaps and figure things out. If you’re up to all that, then go see Eyes Wide Shut in a theatre while you can. If this isn’t your cup of tea, I’m sure the local multiplex has plenty of movies playing where stuff blows up real good. Or, you can always sit at home, drink beer and watch the WWF Television. If that’s not too difficult…

Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles, and a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.



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