Eyes Wide Shut

Monday, December 29, 2008

Like a lot of Kubrick films, Eyes Wide Shut suffered because of raised expectations. Here you have a film with the world’s most famous director and the world’s most famous actor, and it’s all about sex. Therefore it must be an amazing two hour bonk-a-thon, right? But instead Kubrick delivered a quieter, more sombre film. It wasn’t the perverted fuck fest that everyone expected.

I can’t say that Eyes Wide Shut is one of my favourite Kubrick films. Some of the acting is poor, the writing occasionally is clunky and it runs out of steam with about thirty minutes of film left, but despite this, it doesn’t deserve the flack that it received from some of the critics – some consider it a piece of shit. It’s not the masterpiece that everyone hoped for, but it’s a mature look at marriage and sexual jealousy – it’s an adult film, but without the capital ‘A’.

The film’s central scene is the one where Alice (Kidman) and Dr Bill (Cruise) smoke a bit of weed together in their bedroom. They begin talking about a party they attended the night before and the members of the opposite sex they were flirting with. Bill was being hit on by some models and Alice was being seduced by a rich Hungarian. They both want to know what happened. But although it begins as a light-hearted discussion, things suddenly become more serious when Bill fails to show any jealousy over the Hungarian. His explanation that Alice is the mother of his child and that he knows she’d never fuck another man, is far too confident and far too smug. So Alice decides to cut him down to size and show how wrong he is. She tells him about a Naval Officer she wanted to fuck. And she wanted to fuck him so bad that she would have given up her husband and her child for him. Suddenly Bill’s happy, comfortable life comes falling around him. He realises that he doesn’t really know what goes on in his wife’s head and that his marriage isn’t anywhere near as solid as he thought it was. He gets smacked in the face with a heavy does of reality – women have just the same sexual hunger as men and they’re just as likely to be unfaithful.

This scene is one of the best in the film. Kidman is excellent in the way that she blasts a hole through Cruise’s smug self-certainty, and Cruise, while listening to Kidman’s story, radiates suppressed rage. For the first time he’s beginning to understand his wife – if he takes her for granted, everything will be over. And he also understands that he can no longer coast along like he used to. He might have a nice apartment with all the trappings of success, but if he neglects to work on his marriage, if he fails to take any notice of his wife and thinks that he’s indestructible, the most important thing will be lost.

To illustrate how clueless Bill is, there’s a scene where Alice and Bill make out in front of a mirror. Bill comfortably and smugly thinks that his wife is thinking about him, but we can tell that her mind is straying – it’s not only men who fantasise about fucking everything in sight.

After Alice’s confession, the film turns into a bad dream. Bill wanders the streets, consumed with jealousy at the thought of Alice being with another man. All he can think about is her cheating on him.

It’s here, as Bill goes from one strange encounter to another, that the film becomes uneven. First of all you have a scene with a bereaved woman who then declares her love for Dr Bill. The scene doesn’t work particularly well because the actress is so bad. She rolls her eyes and stares wildly, but it’s far too over the top. Then Bill bumps into a prostitute who offers her services to him. This doesn’t really work that well for multiple reasons. First of all, the prostitute is far too good looking. Since when have you ever seen a street whore who looks that cute? Then you have the fact that she seems quite clean, that she’s too shy to talk about sex and that she tenderly kisses Bill. It’s strange to say this for a Kubrick film, but it’s far too sentimentalised. I know the film is basically a dream, but even in your dreams a whore wouldn’t be this sweet and innocent.

Thankfully, though, just when you’re despairing, you have the orgy sequence. It’s not particularly sexy, but that’s missing the point. It’s a nightmare. It’s a vision of how despairing ‘free’ sex would be. There’s no passion to it. Everyone has a wall up – everyone’s masked. Therefore the sex is bleak and cold and depressing. This is what Bill thinks he wants. He thinks he wants an easy fuck. But unfortunately there’s no such thing. Everything has a price.

The orgy sequence is a showcase for Kubrick’s mastery of cinematic language. One of the best shots in the film is when Bill looks up to a balcony and we cut to a slow zoom onto a couple of masked figures. Here the film feels like a horror movie – the shot has a quiet dread that few directors could conjure. And then you have Bill’s tour of the mansion. The music, the camerawork and the lighting are all perfect.

The only negative in the orgy sequence is some of the dialogue. At one point a woman comes up to Bill and asks him if he’s enjoying himself. He says that he’s had an interesting look around. It’s banal in the extreme.

But then much of the dialogue is clunky. For instance, throughout the whole of the film, Bill has the habit of repeating what other people say to him. He does it so often that you begin to anticipate it and begin tearing your hair out when he does it for fiftieth time. ‘Would you like to come inside with me?’ ‘Come inside with you?’ Argh!

And like I say, some of the acting is atrocious. I’ve already mentioned the eye-rolling woman, but then there’s Alan Cumming. He’s supposed to be a hotel clerk that flirts with Bill. But Cumming’s accent slips a handful of times and he seems to think he’s in a remake of Are You Being Served? He’s so overwhelmingly camp that I’m surprised that he didn’t just reach over the desk and wank Bill off right there and then. It’s a buffoonish, tic-ridden performance – a complete caricature of a homosexual.

But worse than this are the two models at the beginning of the movie. There’s an English one who sounds plumier than Elizabeth Hurley and who natters endlessly about what a great guy Bill is because he got some crud out of her eye with a handkerchief (more crushingly banal dialogue), and then there’s another one with a silly name who genuinely seems handicapped. Her attempts at flirting seem like the wild flailings of someone with Parkinson’s.

Oh, and have I mentioned that the Hungarian Count is played by someone who resembles an Eastern European Roger Moore? Yes, in a way this is strangely cool, but for a serious film it’s a bit of distraction. The smarm made me almost keel over.

Another annoyance is the piece of music that seems to play every ten seconds. You know, the piano one. The one that sounds like it’s played by a chimp trying to learn to play a musical instrument. He’s so confused by the strange contraption that sits before him that he can only hit a key every five seconds. But yeah, although most of the music is great, this one piece appears over and over again when something ‘important’ is meant to be happening (like when someone is very slowly delivering a letter). A bit more variety was called for, Stanley.

So with all of these distractions it’s sometimes easy to overlook all the great stuff in the film.

Other wonderful bits are the scene when Alice tells Bill about a dream she had, one where she fucked other men and mocked her husband. And then there’s the scene where Bill watches his wife do homework with his daughter. He pretends to look lovingly at her but he can only think about the dream she told him about, and so this idyllic sight has been corrupted for him. And I also love the moments where Bill is stalked through the streets of New York by a strange man. No one can do quiet horror like Kubrick.

And there’s a pleasingly adult message to the film. That we shouldn’t take each other for granted. That we shouldn’t coast along in our lives and assume that everything will be okay. We need to work constantly on our relationships. We need to put the effort in. Because it’s easy to give in to temptation. But what’s more difficult and ultimately more fulfilling, is to maintain a deep connection with one’s partner. I mean, all through the film, almost every character responds sexually to Bill. But what would be the point of any of the liaisons? How would they make anything better? They wouldn’t. So people need to wake up and realise the importance of what they have. They need to stop drifting blinding through life, hoping that everything will turn out for the best in the end, because it probably won’t.

But still, that damn piano music and Alan Cumming and the models and the repetitive dialogue. You almost had another great film Stanley.

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  1. Eyes Wide Shut begins exactly where Joyce's tale The Dead (the last in Dubliners) ends. If you can, read it: it makes EWS almost a sequel, and in Joyce's tale there are many elements that Kubrick reprises - but then trying to beyond. The main character in The Dead, Gabriel, who is basically Tom Cruise in EWS, ends up with a confused mind and the sense that he never really understood both his own life and - more importantly - his wife. Kubrick in EWS tries to find some answers, but the path is difficult and cryptic.

    You can read Joyce's tale here: http://www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/958/