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EYES WIDE SHUT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Rade Sherbedgia
Director:  Stanley Kubrick
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  159 Minutes
Release Date: 
October 23, 2007

"I'll tell you everything..."

Film ****

If you’ll forgive me for beginning in a personal way, I spent the afternoon re-watching Eyes Wide Shut, and thinking about the years that have passed since the death of Stanley Kubrick.  It’s no secret that he was my favorite filmmaker, but for me, it was so much more than just being a fan.  In a strange way, I almost consider him my mentor.  Virtually everything I’ve ever learned about the art of filmmaking I learned from him, and watching and studying his films over and over again.  Each time I would want to say, “I don’t understand,” I would always feel prompted to look closer, and think harder…and realize that in the world of Kubrick there was no right or wrong answer.  It was just he, the master, and us, the audience, one on one, individually.  He set the table for us, and let us take from it what we wished.  How much we wanted to go home with was dependent on us, not him.

I saw Eyes Wide Shut on opening night, with some of my family, who knew how much it meant to me.  I bring it up because part of what I want to do in this review is compare my first viewing with my most recent viewing.  Initially, seeing the picture was an occasion marked with some sobriety.  Kubrick had died after submitting his final cut of the film to the studio, and I watched it unfold in front of me with the intensity of a student who knew this would be the last time he would hear his teacher speak.  I watched the film, enjoyed it, vaguely felt like I hadn’t properly taken everything in, and then went to bed that night amazed at the way the movie filled my dreams all night long.

I wish now I had let myself laugh a little more that first time.  It’s clear upon a fresh viewing that Kubrick was not without his sense of humor, and there are a few instances in the picture where he winks at you and tries to let you know, “It’s supposed to be funny here.”  Like the man who invites Alice (Kidman) to dance at the opening party.  “I’m Hungarian,” he drawls proudly, as though that were all he needed to score with a beautiful woman.  Or the way virtually every woman, and at least one man, reacts to Dr. Bill (Cruise) in a sexual way, as though his very presence were an aphrodisiac.  It keeps him constantly searching for that safe tight wire of charm that he can walk, without taking the fall.

The opening night crowd was more than a little restless.  Many in the audience were obviously there on dates, and apparently were there to see a different kind of picture than what was playing on the screen.  For at least a year prior to its release, the hype had been building up as to what we could expect from it.  I had heard everything from it being a World War I picture (which I doubted, because Kubrick had covered that in Paths of Glory) to a psychological cat and mouse game between a married couple, a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  And of course, this movie was supposed to be the ultimate voyeuristic experience.  After all, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were Hollywood’s most attractive couple, and they were going to bear all and let us see what goes on in their bedroom when they’re alone, right? 

Kubrick, true to the style he’d adapted his entire career, refused to say a word to confirm or deny any of the rumors.  As such, his cast and crew did likewise.  Maybe many people ended up building themselves up for an experience that was never there to begin with.  That’s unfortunate.  But Kubrick always preferred to let his films do the talking for him, and to allow his viewers to read into or bring out of them whatever they most saw fit.

One thing he quite possibly achieved with this film was the complete defiance of conventional categorization.  Is it a mystery?  An erotic thriller?  A romance?  A drama?  A dream or a nightmare?  Perhaps a little of all of these things, but in no wise singularly one of them.  For a man who spent his career attempting to redefine cinematic storytelling, he may have just left as his final legacy a picture that succeeded in doing just that.

At the heart of the story is Bill and Alice, a wealthy and attractive New York couple who seem to have everything going for them.  They have money, a nice home, a wonderful daughter, friends in high places, and mostly, they’re in love.  At least, that’s Bill’s initial point of view.  At a ritzy shindig thrown by their friend Victor (Pollack), each enjoys moments of flirting with others.  Two models come on to Bill, while he remains nervously coy and elusively charming, yet constantly toys with his wedding band.  Alice dances with Mr. Hungarian, only to finally elude him when his charms become a bit too aggressive. 

Later that night, they return home and enjoy some good pot.  Bill is keyed up for sex with his wife, but in their state, he seems to say every wrong thing to her to get her riled up.  Notice how he says “I would never lie to you,” but only a moment after he had done exactly that, which Alice doesn’t pick up on, but we the audience recognize.  He trusts her completely.  After all, she’s the mother of his child.  He doesn’t expect what happens next:  Alice lays a bomb in the form of a fantasy she had one night away from home…a Naval officer, who so filled her with lust, she would have “given up everything” if he had asked her to.

The phone rings, sending Bill out into the night to a patient’s home, but the seed has been planted.  (As an aside, notice how Kubrick toys with the convention of the ringing telephone interrupting a scene…in his film, it’s always at the darkest moment.)  There had been a marriage threatening crisis in his relationship with Alice that he had been blind to…his eyes indeed, wide shut.

He is unsettled, to say the least, and spends the rest of the night in a kind of tense state of highly sexual awareness that continually gets affected upon by outside circumstances.  When he makes his house call, the elderly patient is dead, but his daughter is there, waiting to pounce on Bill with fervent pleas of “I love you!”  Her fiancÚ comes in, and Bill leaves.  Could he have been thinking that somewhere down the road, this confused girl would have the same conversation with her future husband that Alice just had with him…only he would be the intrusive catalytic element?

Out on the street, he’s verbally abused by some thugs, who call him every colorful metaphor for ‘homosexual’ in the book.  Just some bad kids, doing what they do, but we wonder if their challenge to his manhood influences what he does next, which is accept the invitation of a pretty young hooker to go back to her place.

Bill spends the evening coming close to and toying with the idea of infidelity, a notion constantly fueled by his imagined images of his wife’s near infidelity.  And he constantly puts himself in danger in each situation, though neither he nor we always appreciate that until later.  His evening culminates in visiting a mysterious house on the outskirts, cloaked and masked, for what he believes will be the ultimate erotic thrill, but ends up stumbling upon a bizarre, almost pagan like ritual where the sex is indeed abundant, but plays out like a systematic religious ceremony.  This is one of Kubrick’s most awesomely constructed scenes…hypnotic, disturbing, brilliantly paced, and filled with imagery you aren’t likely to forget.

The night before soon turns to the day after, but Bill may be in some real danger from those whose ceremony he spoiled.  His friend, who told him about the party in the first place, has mysteriously vanished.  A pretty young girl turns up dead in the morgue…could she be the one who stepped in and saved him when his secret was discovered?  And will he be the next to go?

It’s easy to see why those looking for an erotic night out at the movies were less than enthusiastic about Eyes Wide Shut.  The movie is not about sex, but rather, walking that edge between reality and fantasy, between sinning by thought and sinning by deed.  It is the about the psychology of a marriage, and the way the tiny empty spaces can suddenly turn into expansive gaps with no way to navigate around them. 

The film disturbs, but not always in ways we understand at first.  I once did an extensive study of Kubrick’s The Shining, and found a lot of subliminal ‘clues’ inherent in the picture, designed to manifest themselves in your subconscious where you don’t note them, but are affected by them nonetheless.  I am beginning to see a lot of that in Eyes Wide Shut.  During a key scene near the end, I made a technical discovery.  Victor and Bill talk across a pool table.  A shot is established of Victor on one side.  Three balls are triangularly lined up in front of him, with the cue ball nearest the camera and a pool cue that seems to point deep into the background at a small end table next to a chair.  Cut to Bill, cut to Victor, and it’s the same.  Cut again to Bill, and…something’s different.  The three balls are still in exactly the same triangular form, but the cue ball is gone, replaced by an orange striped ball.  The cue stick points at nothing.  The end table, a small insignificant prop far in the background, has vanished.  It’s the kind of thing you might not take notice of, but somehow, lets your brain know that something isn’t right here.

Other points of interest:  notice how Christmas permeates every location in the picture in the form of decorative colored lights, either on trees or strung in other ways.  Why Christmas?  Is it because Christmas is traditionally a time of fantasy?  That would explain why, at the very end, before the inevitable return to reality, Bill’s first act is to switch off the tree in their apartment, which had been lit the entire time.  Only one locale has no Christmas homage…the house where the vaguely Wiccan ritual takes place.

And so, in the end, what does it all mean?  That is simply for you to decide, as well as for me, as well as for each of us to place our own value on the picture.  An equal number of critics hated the movie as loved it, which has essentially been true of all of Kubrick’s films.  The Academy chose not to honor it with a single nomination.  Some call it a brilliant last hurrah, others, a meandering mess unworthy of one of our greatest directors.  I think I’ve made it plain where I stand.  I can’t help but feel, however, that Kubrick would have taken great delight in the discussion and debate his final project has inspired.  After all, all great art exists to be judged…it wouldn’t be great otherwise.

NOTE:  At last...this new DVD version allows fans to see the unrated version of Kubrick's final film, without the computer created figures blocking our views of the central scene.

Video ****

Outstanding!  I was wondering if Warner was capable of delivering a quality transfer of a Kubrick film to DVD…they have, and then some.  This anamorphic disc looks better than even the theatrical presentation…crisp, sharp, and beautifully colored, with many instances of color zonings within scenes.  Kubrick’s use of natural light and high contrast film stock often produces grain, but the image has been remarkably cleaned up between the theatrical presentation and this DVD.  One or two instances of that inherent grain is noticeable, but for the most part, this is a clean, clear, gorgeous picture, without complaint. 

Audio ***1/2

If you think a picture of this nature won’t make much use of a 5.1 soundtrack, wait until you see the centerpiece scene, and how the music and low bass effects make it all the more unnerving.  The music drones on and on, filling the space around you with sound, and each percussive 'boom' emanates from the subwoofer with startling power.  The music throughout the film is expressive and dynamic, with soft, unassuming piano music suddenly bursting forth in loud, shrill notes.  The dialogue is always clear and crisp.  Overall, the soundtrack is perfectly suited to enhance the hypnotic quality of the film. An excellent digital experience.

Features ***1/2

The double disc set contains a three part documentary on Kubrick's last movie, plus a featurette on his unfinished films narrated by Malcolm McDowell.  There is particular emphasis on his unrealized visions for Napoleon and for the World War II film Aryan Papers

There are interviews with Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, and Steven Spielberg respectively, totaling about 34 minutes or so.  Each one speaks about their experiences with Kubrick, and their memories are both touching and insightful.

Rounding out is Kubrick's acceptance speech for the 1998 D. W. Griffith Award, plus a trailer and TV spot.

Summary:

Eyes Wide Shut may need multiple viewings and require the passage of some time for fans to fully appreciate it.  I like to think that Stanley Kubrick simply left us with one to grow with.  This is a compelling psychological masterpiece, expertly conceived, crafted and filmed as only he could, and with this quality DVD finally exhibiting Kubrick's vision as he intended, it’s definitely not one to miss.

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