Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Rade Sherbedgia, Todd Field, Thomas Gibson, Leelee Sobieski, Alan Cumming, Sky du Mont
Written by: Frederic Raphael, based on the novella "Traumnovelle" by Arthur Schnitzler
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug-related material
Language: English
Running Time: 159
Date: 07/13/1999
IMDB

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Dream Girls

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Tom Cruise is in the apartment of a prostitute. In an extreme close-up we see lips. They kiss. It's a delicate, tender, kiss. The shot lasts forever. And it's completely silent until we hear the small sound of their lips breaking contact. A wider shot reveals that they still have clothes on. But the scene is already hot. On first viewing, Eyes Wide Shut is little more than a standard Basic Instinct-type erotic thriller, though a thoughtful one.

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman star as a married couple in New York whose relationship is tested when Cruise stumbles upon a sexual cult. As he tries to uncover its secret, he finds that he may be involved in a more sinister plot and that he and his family may be at risk.

Director Stanley Kubrick takes this movie to the level of artistic excellence that Coppola achieved with the gangster picture in The Godfather. Kubrick's films have always been slow in pace, but here the slowness aids the suspense. Conversations between Cruise and Kidman resonate more here because we're given time for their words to truly sink in. Lesser directors would be forced by dunderheaded producers to cut the empty spaces that hum in order to "pick up the pace." But the pace in Eyes Wide Shut couldn't be any more appropriate.

The most exciting thing about Eyes Wide Shut is that it's the first time Kubrick has tackled erotic sex. It's necessary that Cruise and Kidman appear in this movie because of their extraordinary beauty and sex appeal. And that they are married in real life lends a whole extra dimension to the picture. The sensuality here is palpable, using a lot of nudity, but no graphic sex.

With this movie Kubrick has also given up some of his gimmicky filmmaking (like his extreme use of slo-mo) in exchange for human emotions, and the result is exhilarating. We still have Kubrick's glorious style -- extremely wide shots that encompass floors and ceilings; deep focus that clearly shows backgrounds; lighting a scene to give it a certain kind of glow; and those subtle tracking shots that follow an actor from behind. But, with Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick seems to have gone back to the suspense he so excelled at in The Killing (1956).

At its core, Eyes Wide Shut is about marriage and the challenges it represents. When Kidman and Cruise attempt to reconcile what has happened to them, the marriage bond works like an invisible adhesive. Kidman sums everything up in the movie's all-important last line and we go home charged and enlightened.

Eyes Wide Shut represents a major artistic advancement in the career of Stanley Kubrick. It's a shame that it's his last film. But it's also a blessing that he left us a final masterpiece.

Notes on the initial DVD release: Warner Brothers was kind enough to send me an advance DVD of Eyes Wide Shut, and so in return, I wanted to post a new review of it.

The reason I got my DVD is that I sent a cranky letter to them after I found out that they were not only releasing the censored American version of the film (digital figures were added to an "orgy" scene to block the view of sex acts), but that it was also to be panned-and-scanned instead of letterboxed. Yet, I watched the film for the third time at home and I'm still convinced that it's a masterpiece, the best film of 1999, and one of director Stanley Kubrick's best films.

The letter I received presented some interesting arguments: "There is a misconception that there are two versions of Eyes Wide Shut. The film distributed internationally is exactly the same in length and content as the US version. The only difference is the 'digital amendment' that was required for the US version was removed for the international version." It also contains a note from Mrs. Kubrick, explaining that the digital censorship was in accord with her husband's wishes. If it was in accord with Kubrick's wishes, why wasn't it added to the international, uncensored version? The only thing Kubrick "wished" was that the MPAA ratings board would get off his back and so he agreed to the digital enhancement. And, I'm sorry, but there ARE two versions: the censored American version and the uncensored European version.

Normally, a film like this gets restored on video. American Pie was a recent example. Viewers have the option to rent or purchase either the "Rated R" version or the "Unrated" version. Guess which one sold more? I had fearlessly predicted that we would be able to see the uncut version of Eyes Wide Shut on home video, and so I was incensed when I found out that Warners was cravenly sticking to their "policy." Viewers in the US can't even buy the European DVD of Eyes Wide Shut because of the "Region Coding" involved with those machines. So there is still no way for Americans to see the real Eyes Wide Shut as Kubrick filmed it. (Though I've seen comparisons on the web.)

As for the non-letterboxed picture, I found that it didn't make much difference. The film's aspect ratio is something around 1 to 1:66, which would show only the thinnest black bars at the top and bottom of your screen. Plus he framed every shot within normal television aspect ratio anyway. I found that there wasn't a single shot that I wasn't able to see fully.

The film just gets better and better each time you see it, as all Kubrick films do. It involves a sexual odyssey by one Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) after a Christmas party in which both he and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman) flirt with members of the opposite sex. Home and slightly high, the couple begins discussing the nature of their fidelity and Alice reveals a time that she almost cheated on him. Bill gets a call that a patient of his has died and must make a house call. From there, he has several sexual encounters of many kinds, each designed to test him and open his eyes.

Many criticized the film for its lack of realism, which I believe is its asset. A sexual odyssey is a personal thing, and that it takes place in a dreamlike world makes it all the better. Bill's encounters are almost all unsolicited. Different parties come on to him, including the underage daughter (Leelee Sobieski) of a costume shop owner (Rade Sherbedgia), and a band of partying frat boys, who instantly assume that Bill is gay. His sexuality is on full view, and even the frat boys can sense it. (Incidentally, the frat boys were Nazis in Arthur Schniztler's original novella.)

This exploration sequence has a sense of danger to it. The act of exploring sexuality with others when one has a wife at home is terribly exciting and forbidden. But the fact is that Bill doesn't have sex with anyone. He kisses a prostitute named Domino (Vinessa Shaw) but that's it. (He's rewarded for his fidelity. The next day Domino is diagnosed as being HIV positive.) Bill crosses a line when he invites sex into his life by willful act. He meets up with his piano player friend Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), recently reunited at the Christmas party, at a bar. Nick lets slip information about an exclusive sex party that he plays piano for. Bill gets the password, "Fidelio" (Italian for "fidelity"), picks up a mask and cloak, and attends.

Kubrick and co-screenwriter Frederic Raphael introduce a bit of a murder mystery at this point. When Bill is discovered at the "orgy," an unnamed woman comes forward and saves him. The next day, a woman (could it be the same woman?) is dead of a drug overdose. Bill suspects foul play, but realizes that he himself is in too much danger to do anything. I think Kubrick introduced this element into the script to give it a bit of "respectability." He had said for years that he wanted to make a mainstream "blue movie," and this was it. From the outside, it looks like an erotic thriller along the lines of Basic Instinct (1992), but it's really a complex story about marriage and sexuality. Raphael was the right man for the job, having penned one of the cinema's most daring looks at a marriage, Two for the Road (1967) with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.

The movie winds down by leaving the murder mystery ambiguous. Bill goes to see Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) who attempts to explain both how serious Bill's situation is and how nothing really happened. (Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his excellent review, believes that Pollack and his fellow revelers are guilty.) Then Bill goes home to find that Alice has discovered his mask. Bill sobs, "I'll tell you everything." Kubrick doesn't show us their conversation, though. We only see that they've both been crying and that they been up all night. Yet the final conversation in the toy store (innocence? new beginnings?) and Alice's one-word wrap-up leave us with hope that the couple will start exploring their sexuality together.

Eyes Wide Shut is all the more amazing when you consider the critique that most of Kubrick's work is "cold" and non-human. Sex has not been a motif in any of his films, unless it be depraved sex, as in Lolita (1962) or A Clockwork Orange (1971), or humorous sex as with the mid-air refueling in Dr. Strangelove (1964). That Eyes Wide Shut is a mature, artful, and honest look at human sexual emotions and dreams, especially for a filmmaker at the end of his career, is astonishing.

The movie moves in dream waves, with Kubrick's long, slow, lovely takes and his subtly glowing lighting. Most movies are supposed to be economical and lean, with no time for stopping and smelling the roses or getting to know the characters. They are supposed to get on with the plot and keep it moving. Kubrick's contract with Warners allowed him extraordinary freedom and was allowed to deeply explore this material, taking as long as he wanted with each shot. I don't think many people realize what a treasure this movie really is. (Incidentally, Clint Eastwood, a powerful and growing filmmaker in his own right, has a similar contract with Warner Brothers.)

It's interesting to think that all of Kubrick's films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) on, have been critical failures when they first opened. They've all been reevaluated with hindsight and all have been accepted as great or near-great films. Did weekly reviewers in 1999 keep this phenomenon in mind when they panned Eyes Wide Shut? Don't they know that it, too, will be seen as a classic in time? Maybe their eyes were wide shut. Steven Spielberg, in his interview on the DVD, insists that Kubrick films were meant to be seen many times. He cites a story in which he saw The Shining (1980) only once (and didn't like it) and got stuck talking to Kubrick about it. He went on to see the film many more times and now loves it.

I still wish I could have seen the uncut and letterboxed version of Eyes Wide Shut, but I'm extremely grateful to Warner Bros. for sending me a copy. It's a movie that I treasure and will want to see many times. If you haven't seen it, take a deep breath, sit back, and let it wash over you.

DVD Details: After obtaining a multi-region DVD player, I found a reasonably-priced Region 2 DVD from England that removes the digital tinkering from the "orgy" scene. After having seen the American version so many times, the results are a bit shocking, but the sex isn't any more graphic than I've seen in any other mainstream release. Otherwise the English disc is exactly the same in every respect.

DVD Details II: It's finally over. In October of 2007, Warner Home Video released the uncut, letterboxed version on a two-disc DVD set. A Blu-ray is also available. Hooray!