Mission: Interminable

Stanley Kubrick's long-delayed Eyes Wide Shut sets out to baffle and bore Tom Cruise fans--and succeeds impeccably

Alas, Eyes Wide Shut may not tell us much about the sex lives of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, but it does prove definitively that the late director Stanley Kubrick was one seriously perverse man. Not sexually perverse, mind you: This unrivaled master of the Steadicam and the low-angle stare was far too much of a control freak to get jiggy, and indeed there's nothing of a carnal nature in his purportedly erotic parting shot that couldn't be found in one of the uncut Madonna videos from earlier in the decade. Nor does such abstinence point to the auteur's sagging virility near the end of his life, since even the young Kubrick of Lolita favored screwing with the viewer's head.

Even more than the postwar European cineastes who'd slyly titillate ticket buyers in trade for the privilege of being almost inscrutably profound, the hermitic Kubrick lived to make intellectual sport of audience expectations. In this sense, his final work is the checkmate culmination of a transcontinental chess tournament between Art and Commerce--the producer-director's strategy being to play both sides himself, and without often leaving his Hertfordshire manse. Two of the pawns in this particular match are Cruise and Kidman. And primarily on account of their box-office drawing power--a force exponentially increased by the apparent promise of catching them in flagrante delicto--Eyes Wide Shut opened huge last weekend. But I for one would suppose--and this is no faint praise, either--that the film will be missing from most multiplexes by the middle of next month. Indeed, not since Godard's Contempt earned its title by turning Brigitte Bardot into a Brechtian bore has a sextravaganza so systematically contrived to turn the viewer off.

The devolution of man: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut
The devolution of man: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut

Based on the 1926 novella Traumnovelle by Freud acquaintance Arthur Schnitzler (which seems unlikely to make the Times bestseller list), Eyes Wide Shut is a ruthless tease and a deadpan farce--a sarcastic shaggy dog story with a somnambulist's pace, a largely joyless film about joylessness, and as abstract and ambiguous a study of marital "adventure" and reconciliation as Rossellini's Voyage to Italy. But might there be a smidgen of Nineties Hollywood in here, too? Always an expert subverter of high- and lowbrow movies, Kubrick may have been thinking of Indecent Proposal as well as Vertigo when he prepared Eyes Wide Shut. After all, the would-be water-cooler debate here involves whether Kidman's seemingly bored Central Park West homemaker and mom tells her doctor hubby (Cruise) about her attraction to a naval officer in the interests of honesty or as a way of justifiably exacting a psychic toll--and, what's more, whether the doctor's subsequent search for love in all the wrong places is predicated on his justifiable need to get even with her. Not as arousing a headscratcher as "Would you (let your wife) sleep with Robert Redford for a million dollars?" perhaps, but it is one of the few instances in which Kubrick seems to invite rather than flout the viewer's participation.

Still, some of the Cruise and Kidman fans who thrilled to the stars' previous pairings in Far and Away and Days of Thunder might do better to discuss whether Eyes Wide Shut is even the least bit sexy--and if not, why not, and to what end. The 90-second scene that caused such a stir when it was used as an R-rated coming-attractions trailer--the loving couple nuzzling each other's naked bodies in front of a mirror--appears far less hot when it comes 20 minutes into Kubrick's cold, cold movie. Call this a Kubrickian experiment in shaping the viewer's reactions to a shot by altering the context around it: In the film, the mirror escapade is bracketed by scenes of the doctor's clinical examinations of patients at his office and at a lavish party where a naked and nearly comatose woman has OD'd on coke and heroin (sexy, huh?). Besides, Kidman's eye-rolling Alice looks like she'd rather be somewhere else than in this mirror's confining frame (not to mention that she sounds as weary as Julie Hagerty). As for her fantasy about the naval officer, this (apparently) erotic dream is reenacted as a slurred succession of black-and-white images reeling through the mind of Cruise's (apparently) jealous William, and only Alice's prior confession of lust (apparently) prevents this subjective "love scene" from resembling a rape.

Such apocalyptic detonations of the viewer's desire aren't anything new for Kubrick. Lolita, you'll recall, was an adult entertainment about child molestation; Dr. Strangelove was a screwball comedy about nuclear war; 2001 was a space odyssey almost entirely devoid of action; A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon were ornate portraits of violent pathology; The Shining was a "supernatural" horror film about alcoholism and writer's block; and Full Metal Jacket was a war movie with a lone woman as the enemy. These are hallowed classics now, but it bears mentioning that all were released to audience disappointment and critical derision. Characteristically (and not incorrectly), Variety found 2001 to be "lacking the humanity of Forbidden Planet"; Lolita to be "like a bee from which the stinger has been removed"; and The Shining to be an exercise in trying to "destroy all that was so terrifying about Stephen King's bestseller." Likewise, the recent reviews that have labeled Eyes Wide Shut "disappointing" and "not sexy" are at once spot-on and clueless about Kubrick's obdurate strategy and his history of being ahead of the critical curve. Among the new film's countless contradictions is that it's a summer blockbuster by a director whose works typically take years to collect their dues.

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