Lawrence Russell

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) dir. Stanley Kubrick writ. Kubrick (from the novel by Arthur Schnitzler) cine. ??? star. Tom Cruise (Dr. Bob Harford), Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford), Sydney Pollack (Victor Ziegler), Vanessa Shaw (Domino), Leelee Sobieski (Milich's daughter), Marie Richardson (Marion), Todd Field (Nick Nightingale)

Women express adultery as dream... and it's within dream that they torment their husbands, lovers, sons. In Eyes Wide Shut it's possible that this torment is part of the contemporary sexual neurosis, because, if anything, the story is a morality fable -- sex kills. Despite his odyssey into sexual torment and dream theatre, the protagonist, "Dr. Bob" (Tom Cruise), never gets laid, and is lucky to be alive after his foolhardy incursion into a sex cult. He has a close brush with AIDS, assassination, and, worst of all, a loss of faith.

Based on the novel Traumnovelle by the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, the entire action has an old world feel despite being updated and relocated to contemporary New York. This especially true of the Cafe Sonata and the subsequent scene in the costume shop, doorways to the bizarre that are familiar to readers of Herman Hesse, not only Schnitzler. The most obvious example is, of course, the "play within" at the country mansion outside the city whose fifteenth century stone dressings defy even the most plutocratic of American architectural imitation.

Eros versus Death: Freud, Kubrick, and the final painting

Dr. Bob and his artsy wife attend a big party at the house of one Victor Ziegler, a collector of fine art and fine women. As Alice drunkenly flirts and dances with an aging Hungarian straight out of an opera, Dr. Bob is called upstairs on an emergency to attend to a beautiful naked young woman who has overdosed on a coke-heroin speedball while having sex with the host. Dr. Bob manages to rouse her from the death slumber in a resurrection that later plays a significant part in his own "redemption".

Meanwhile the Hungarian is trying to lure Alice "upstairs" but she resists. It seems however that the Hungarian's procurement is more successful than you at first realize, that Alice has been seduced into the Freudian dream that Vienna has so successfully peddled in the last century, especially in the U.S.A. When they go home, Alice and Bob smoke dope in anticipation of a good roll in the sack... but as is often the case after an evening of drunken socializing, it ends in a post-mortem of confession and recrimination. It's a typical scene -- the wife accuses her husband of wanting to fuck a certain woman or women, then proceeds to revenge by confessing a lust of her own. In this instance, it's a naval officer, a sensual beast Alice claims she would've slept with but for the grace of God. She goes further -- she's involved in a dream with her sailor lover, and becomes the whore of a hundred men in a faceless orgy.

Dr. Bob is stunned. But he has little time to debate with his wife, as his cell phone rings, summoning him to the second emergency of the evening. As he rides in the back of the taxi en route to his patient, he replays the sexual passion of his wife in a recurring loop of torment, and is thus recruited into the "dream". That this is so is evidenced by what happens next: the patient is dead in his bed and in a moment of wild Freudian transference his daughter kisses Dr. Bob and declares her love for him. You expect them to go at it on the floor beside the dead father's bed but in an evening of continuous coitus interruptus this is not to be -- her fiance arrives and Dr. Bob makes a confused exit.

The entire action is driven by such interruptions. When Dr. Bob is picked up by a student hooker, they are interrupted by his cell phone. These cliches of modern drama are in reality the cliches of contemporary life. He enters the jazz club, Cafe Sonata, and his reunion with his old medical school friend Nick Nightingale is interrupted when Nick's cell rings, summoning him to his gig at the castle. The solitude of the material world has been replaced by the society of the virtual world. The phantoms of memory have become realities.

The best scene with the best sequences occurs at the sexual high mass conducted in the Tudor castle somewhere outside the city. Like a Renaissance masque where men and women convene in costume and conceal their faces with elaborate spirit masks for the purposes of clandestine sexual congress, this sex cult comes complete with its own pope and occultic ritual. With the red pope (or Grand Master) surrounded by a circle of statuesque women wearing nothing but masks and jewelry (in turn surrounded by the black cloaked and masked cult members) as the blindfolded Nick Nightingale strikes piercing war notes and occasional chords on his electronic organ, you recognize that this is choreography by Hugh Hefner, women by Helmut Newton.

It's all downhill from here, except for the real ending where Dr. Bob discovers his mask lying on his pillow beside his sleeping wife. His incursion into into the private sex-club of the anonymous rich and famous (except, of course, Victor Ziegler) leads to immediate consequences: the death of Domino, the beauty who sacrifices herself in recognition of his previous "saving" of her in Ziegler's upstairs bathroom, and the disappearance of Nick Nightingale, the musician who plays with his "eyes wide shut".

the plane of coincidence: destiny and dream

As a paradigm it's not bad, not bad at all. The lineage is Freud (Eros versus Death), the execution surrealist. In a mechanistic universe, the coincidences would be unacceptable, but in the geometry of dream they are part of the conspiracy that holds us prisoner to our Oedipal desires and familial betrayals.

It's a pity that the film is undermined by an ineffective, non-dramatic ending. Just like the confession scene between Alice and Bob, the "truth" scene between Bob and Victor is so slow and improvisationally laborious it's painful. And the resolution in the toy store is just simply irrelevant. It's these real-time sequences that undermine the acting and make you question the casting.

But as a final painting by a Hollywood Master, it can't be ignored.

© LR 19/7/99


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