Eyes Wide Shut
Stanley Kubrick's lon-awaited opus is a $65 million Bergman film


*Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick's final film, is familiar in many obvious ways. It is color-coded and stylized as only his films are. It has those graceful tracking shots, and one or two weird scenes that I expect I'll remember. It's also the best Ingmar Bergman film since Bergman retired, with a sexual narrative that brings to mind Persona and Winter Light, an orgy that recalls Hour of the Wolf, and a running theme of sexual humiliation that echoes Sawdust and Tinsel.

Eyes Wide Shut isn't so much about adultery, which is avoidable, as it is the dream of it, which can only be endured.

It's a movie that tries to dig away at the veneer of a supposedly happy relationship; unfortunately, it stars a beautiful real-life couple, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, whose veneer is buffed to a sheen that is as glossy as it is opaque. Like most of Kubrick's films over the past 30 years, it is lush and mesmerizing and, finally, comes up short. The result is Scenes from a Marriage, starring Ken and Barbie.

Cruise and Kidman play Bill and Alice Harford, who have been married nine years, have a seven-year-old daughter, live in a book-lined Central Park West apartment, and don't mind peeing in front of each other (suggesting true intimacy). Their problems start the night they attend a fancy party thrown by super-rich hedonist Victor (Sydney Pollack, whose bathroom has side-by-side toilets, suggesting more intimacy than I care to know about). Alice is romanced by a vampiric older man, and Bill catches the attention of not one but two supermodel lollipops.

Eventually, the evening takes a nasty turn; Victor's beautiful girlfriend has a post-coital overdose, and Bill is summoned to administer first aid. Back home, Bill and Alice start grilling each other about their sexual desires. Alice, considerably loosened up by the evening, tells Bill more than he wants to hear about her lust for a naval officer.

The fact that Alice has at least thought about unfaithfulness unsettles Bill. When he is called away by the death of a friend, he begins his own walk on the wild side, and goes through a series of experiences, which variously involve sexual temptation and destruction. When Bill arrives to pay his respects to his late friend, the friend's soon-to-be-married daughter begs him to make love to her. This is the best scene in the movie, because it naturally and unapologetically suggests how death can actually incite desire, as a way of embracing life.

Bill goes on to visit a prostitute, nearly gets his ass kicked by a gang of toughs and, at a costume shop, walks in on some kind of weird-ass threesome between an underwear-clad teenage kewpie doll (Leelee Sobieski) and two Oriental gentlemen.

He also crashes a posh orgy -- a literal masked ball -- where a satanic master of revels, bearing a cane and a censer, pairs off anonymous women and men. The charade proves deadly; Bill is outed, nearly loses his life, and returns home fearful that he has caused someone else to lose hers. He is jointly tortured both by thoughts of his wife's unfaithfulness and his culpability in the death of a stranger. He is a prisoner of his fears and dreams.

Dreams play an important role in the movie, which is based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 Traumnovelle (Dream Novel), a little-known work which apparently stayed on Kubrick's mind for decades. The movie isn't so much about adultery, which is avoidable, as it is the dream of it -- adultery in the heart, which can only be endured.

Bill and Alice aren't at war with competitors, but with desires, the desire for anyone other than themselves. This is an interesting idea, and one wishes Kubrick had pushed it further, and really dug up something new and unsettling. But Eyes Wide Shut is no Last Tango in Paris. It's a shallow movie that, in the end, doesn't say much more than love the one you're with, because adultery will kill you. The movie is like a nice suit wasted on a pale, little man.

Long before his death in March at age 70, Kubrick had sealed his reputation as the world's most anal director: an ace technician who sweated every word and frame, with each new project taking years and years longer than its predecessor. Eyes Wide Shut, luckily completed just days before a sudden heart attack, had the longest gestation period of any film in recent memory. It was his 13th film. Hitchcock made more than 50, Ford more than 100, Fassbinder more than 30 (before dying at 36) and Bergman, still with us, more than 40.

Not that this means anything. Proust devoted most of his artistic life to one great novel, and lesser artists wrote dozens in the same time. The difference with Kubrick is that growing perfectionism has not always yielded greater dividends. His best films were made in the relatively short period from 1956 to 1963. The Killing is first-class noir; Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove are passionate and funny anti-war films, and Lolita is a not-bad realization of an unfilmable novel.

Kubrick was not heard from again until 1968, when he re-emerged, to nearly worldwide acclaim, as the film nerd responsible for 2001. His work grew both more assured and more sterile; he would never again make a film as fresh and electric as The Killing.

The title of this new film brings to mind one of Kubrick's most lasting images: Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange, that helpless product of Pavlovian conditioning, his hands tied down and his eyes clamped open, forced to watch endless scenes of sex and violence. It's a memorably startling image of how movies captivate us, especially Kubrick's, even long after you've decided he isn't a god. You cannot not watch Kubrick.

Rodney Welch lives in Elgin.

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