The Naked and the Dead

Eyes Wide Shut is a fearfully distant orgy.

Eyes Wide Shut

Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Warner Bros.

Late in Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, there’s a harsh bit of piano music by the Hungarian-born composer György Ligeti: one high note plinking over and over, first slow, then hard and fast and cruelly untranscendent. The camera, meanwhile, rests on the face of Kubrick’s protagonist, a New York doctor called Bill Harford, who’s only just comprehending the horror of what he has witnessed over the previous 24 hours–the bestial evil under the waltzing façade of civilization. (The early part of the movie is scored with waltzes.) This moment is meant to be soul-churning for both the character and the audience, but Harford is played by Tom Cruise, who is not, to put it gently, a thoughtful actor. Cruise’s brow is preternaturally low, and when he tries to simulate brain activity he looks like a Neanderthal contemplating his Cro-Magnon neighbor’s presentation of fire: What this orange snake make finger feel hot? That the emotional climax of Kubrick’s last movie is Tom Cruise screwing up his face and feigning a tragic awareness while a piano goes plink … plink … plink-plink-plinkplinkPLINK is enough to make you cry, but not the way the filmmaker intended. Like Kent in King Lear we must ask, “Is this the promis’d end?”

It is certainly the end toward which Kubrick labored. The director reportedly discovered Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle (Dream Novella, although it has been translated as other things) in the late ‘60s, spent several years on the updated and Americanized but otherwise faithful script (he shares the credit with Frederic Raphael), and shot and reshot it for an eyes-wide-opening period of a year and a half. (Only after principal photography was finished did he replace actors Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh with Sydney Pollack and Marie Richardson.) EyesWide Shut, for better or worse, is the movie Kubrick wanted to make–the fever dream that haunted him and that he trusted would haunt us, too. But as usual with late Kubrick, the aspirations seem more haunting than the plinking. The movie is a somnolent load of wank.

I t’s easy to see what drew the director to Schnitzler’s narrative. The hero yields to a best-repressed impulse (the urge to be unfaithful to his true love) and gets launched on a dark odyssey, which culminates in his near death and a vision of society’s most ferociously psychosexual underpinnings–civilization and its discontents and all that. The movie couples sexual obsession with an epochal fear of sex: It says, “Don’t go there, you won’t like what you see.” The ingenuous Harford and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), attend a lavish Christmas party thrown by the magnate Ziegler (Pollack), in which both are sexually propositioned. After a bout of jealous banter, the doctor declares a smug faith in his wife’s fidelity, whereupon Alice–who has been smoking dope and quietly simmering–wallops him with the news that she once came this close to abandoning him and the couple’s daughter for a soldier she locked eyes with at a resort hotel.

His domestic stability more precarious than he ever dreamed, Harford is eaten at by fantasies of his wife and the soldier, and emerges from his apartment into a kind of Walpurgisnacht. The daughter (Richardson) of a dead patient blurts out a wish to leave her fiance for him. A prostitute (Vinessa Shaw) picks him up. He visits a costume shop in which the voluble proprietor (Rade Servedzija) discovers his pubescent daughter (Leelee Sobieski) in flagrante with a pair of customers. The film’s centerpiece is a sequence in which the doctor perilously crashes an ornately choreographed orgy in which the rich and powerful wear cloaks and Venetian masks and ogle long-legged women as they’re marshaled and disrobed by attendants. That he isn’t supposed to be there dawns on him about the time the masks turn his way and the conversation stops.

Although Schnitzler wrote Traumnovelle when he was partially deaf and had withdrawn from the world, he chose to set the novella a quarter-century earlier, at the fabled Viennese fin de siècle, when Freud was spinning out NC-17-ish interpretations of dreams (he and Schnitzler were correspondents) and Schnitzler himself was attempting to beat Casanova’s record for the most orgasms with the most women. Steeped in Expressionism (Strindberg’s A Dream Play had been mounted in Germany only a few years earlier), Traumnovelle has a paranoid dream logic that feels inexorable and a tone of breathless intimacy that smoothes out many of its absurdities.

That tone would have been a snap for Kubrick in the days of The Killing (1956), Lolita (1962), and Dr. Strangelove (1964), and a stretch after 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), when his storytelling acquired an all-purpose lugubriousness. But by the end of his life Kubrick had little stretch left: He didn’t extend himself to fit his material, he contracted his material to fit his turgid tempos. That wins him points as an auteur but not as an artist–someone who at least needs to make a show of finding his subject more involving than his own voice. In Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick can’t manage to get past his sour detachment and enter into the movie. He keeps the characters at arm’s length: When the doctor treats a half-naked woman who has overdosed in Ziegler’s commodious commode, the shot is another of those fisheye specials that makes the space seem cavernous yet oppressive; Kubrick seems more alert to the color scheme–the towel that covers her breasts matches the turquoise of the shower–than to the woman’s suffering (which will later be of more than passing significance). 

H ow many takes did Kubrick force his actors into to get performances this flamboyantly bogus? The early scenes are the most maladroit. A Hungarian (Sandor Szavost) who whirls Alice around on the dance floor while purring suave come-ons is like Dracula out of a Mel Brooks parody, and Kidman’s giggly responses (she’s supposed to be drunk) recall Melanie Griffith at her most airheaded. The pair of models who try to pick up Dr. Harford have dialogue so stilted that it could have been written by David Mamet. The unease Kubrick generates is a little like Mamet’s: You can’t tell if everyone sounds so phony because they’re all part of a scheme to hoodwink the protagonists or because Kubrick has forgotten how human beings talk. Or maybe it’s all a–woo woo–dream.

Eyes Wide Shut has a timeless feel, and I don’t mean that as a compliment: It supposedly takes place in New York in the present, but it’s estranged from any period I recognize. Who are these people played by Cruise and Kidman, who act as if no one has ever made a pass at them and are so deeply traumatized by their newfound knowledge of sexual fantasies–the kind that mainstream culture absorbed at least half a century ago? Where do these heroically self-sacrificing prostitutes come from? Who are these aristocrats whose limos take them to secret masked orgies in Long Island mansions? Even dream plays need some grounding in the real world. There might have been a way to make the movie work if the characters hadn’t been so abstracted, so generic. But in an evocative (if self-serving) piece in TheNew Yorker, Raphael notes that his original script was ultimately “blanched of all the duplicity that made it alive” for him, that at every turn Kubrick took out details of personality in pursuit of an underlying archetype. I don’t know how a director whose central theme is the loss of humanity can be so uninterested in the minutiae of human speech and behavior.

Posthumous tributes have emphasized Kubrick’s unkempt-Jewish-teddy-bear warmth and blamed the myth that he was “cold” on entertainment journalists determined to make him pay for his (sensible) decision to remove himself from their orbit. But the coldness that has become synonymous with Kubrick’s name has little to do with his life, and everything to do with the clinical distance he maintained from his own characters. The stripping (to a waltz) that Kidman does in the first frames of Eyes Wide Shut serves only to display her high, tight buttocks and long thighs–the first of many high, tight buttocks and long thighs in the movie–and has nothing to do with who she is. Where’s the drama in her husband’s (and our) realization that she’s fundamentally unknowable when she has been photographed from the outset as a blank, leggy doll?

The movie’s lone masterful sequence is the one that features a batch of blank, leggy dolls, along with people whose faces are hidden behind expressive masks. As Cruise moves past the fornicating satyrs and satyrettes to the euphonious dronings of Jocelyn Plook’s music, one feels Kubrick, at last, is in his element. He doesn’t need to force his actors to caricature their behavior in the name of some “archetypal” truth because those masks are already so marvelously archetypal. The most vivid moments in Kubrick’s films in the last 30 years have come when he has turned his actor’s faces into masks: Think of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Jack Nicholson in TheShining (1980), and Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket (1987). Maybe Kubrick would have made nothing but masterpieces if he’d put big Greek or Venetian masks on all his actors. You can stare at Cruise’s mask as he takes in the orgy and swear you see the wheels turning in his head. Tom Cruise thinking is the year’s most startling special effect.