Film Scouts Reviews

"Eyes Wide Shut"

by Henri Béhar

This is a case where hype (short-term) and image-making (long-term) conspire to misposition a film. Remember the wild rumors and the tabloid headlines over the last three years - "Stanley Kubrick Back in Business!" "Kubrick to Direct Tom and Nicole!" (no last names necessary for these two, right?) "Tom and Nicole Have Sex on Screen!" "Hot, hot, HOT!!!" - all the more exacerbated by the director's legendary secrecy.

No film can measure up and early reports indicated major disappointment among the critics: "Kubrick's Sex Opus Pretty Tame" "Tom and Nicole as sexy as lampposts!" or, as French daily Libération put it, referring to Days of Thunder and Far and Away? "Cruise and Kidman's embrace generate less sparks than two pencil erasers rubbed against each other."

Kubrick's untimely death four days after he completed the movie (minus some digital work) has added a a sense of closure to the mix. Like it or not, Kubrick's oeuvre is now completed and many lower their voices by one octave and speak of it with the hushed reverential tone generally reserved to God. It is worth remembering that nearly all of Kubrick's films got mixed reviews and spotty b.o. when they came out in North America. If Clockwork Orange scored rather well and Lolita was a succès de scandale, Barry Lyndon and The Shining were considered arrogant artsy-fartsy flops, and one famous critic notoriously deemed 2001, Space Odyssey "totally unimaginative". But Kubrick's stock always rose with the passing of time; "reevaluation" is the operative word as far as his films are concerned. So what follows - a first impression - is bound to be reassessed in a viewing or two, in a year or two.

So what have we here? Two of the "beautiful people" are getting ready for a black-tie Christmas party. They have movie-star looks, a sprawling apartment on Central Park, and glamorous professions: he's a doctor (no HMO here, please!), she used to run an art gallery. "How do I look?" Alice asks. "Perfect", Bill replies, barely looking at her as he studies his own face in the mirror...

Chez Sydney Pollack (a garishly richly decorated townhouse), Bill and Alice Harford (Cruise-Kidman) mingle with the crowd. Soon each of them engages in a kind of a flirtation, she with a silky-smooth European, he with two models who promise to take him "where the rainbow ends."

Three elements trigger an inexorable chain of events. As it turns out, the pianist at the party, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), knew Bill at medical school; he is also playing at a downtown joint called the Sonata Cafe. The party's host (Sydney Pollack as his most Harvey-Keitelish unsavory) summons Bill upstairs to treat a gorgeous, naked woman suffering a drug overdose. Cruise saves the victim.

Back home, titillated, among other things, by their respective flirtations, Bill and Alice begin to make love (you've all seen it, it's in the "Tom and Nicole! Naked! Hot!" trailer.) But intimacy escalates into an argument (marijuana is smoked - and inhaled!). She confesses to having wildly desired a stranger, a Navy officer. Did she sleep with him? Is Bill simply visualizing what may or may not have taken place? Does it matter? Enraged, Bill uses an unexpected phone call to go out into the night.

A pause here. Tom and Nicole. Are they hot? Do they get it on? Do you see anything? I don't know how the Cruises fuck and frankly, I don't give a damn. If they have smashing sex together, more power to them. If they don't, there's room for improvement. What I do know, however, is that it would have been a mistake if their characters were great in bed together. The point is precisely that Bill and Alice aren't. Not anymore. They're like most couples after nearly ten years of marriage. And it is precisely the wild abandon expressed by Alice as she recalls her tryst that throws Bill out into the night (thus making this Cruise's movie, not Tom-and-Nicole's.)

Night in the city, night in the soul. A night dotted with grippingly intense encounters - a dead man's daughter (Marie Richardson), a concierge (Cabaret's Alan Cumming),two prostitutes (Vinessa Shaw, Fay Masterson), the owner of a costume rental store (Rade Sherbedgia) and his Lolita-like daughter (Leelee Sobieski). The slow way in which these episodes unfold only adds to the tension, which culminates in an intense and insanely ritualized orgy in a mansion at the Hamptons where men are cloaked, women are naked and everybody is masked. (considering Kubrick's perfectionnism, those 18 minutes must have taken six months to shoot - wish we'd been part of that insanity!) Nowhere more than in that orgy scene do sex and death so obviously combine, revealing the true theme of both Kubrick's film and Arthur Schnitzler's Viennese 1926 short story Traumnovelle ("Dream Story") on which it is based.

As critic Janet Maslin writes in the New York Times, "[i]n what is truly the riskiest film of his career, the man who could create a whole new universe with each undertaking chose the bedroom as the last frontier..." That has definitely escaped the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and brings to harsh light the failings of the ratings system that it oversees. True, there is frontal nudity and sexual couplings in "Eyes Wide Shut", but the version shown in the United States has had several sex scenes altered in order to carry an R rating instead of the dreaded NC-17 (no one under 17 admitted). Said NC-17 version, however, will be shown across Europe. It's mostly a matter of economics: studios are reluctant (to put it mildly) to release NC-17 films because a substantial number of theatres and video stores will turn them down, and "mainstream" publications will not take their ads.

The corpus delicti, so to speak, is the orgy scene. In the US version, the copulating couples are visible but partly shielded by computer-generated figures - caped and hooded individuals - representing orgygoers watching them. None of that nonsense in the European version. The party line is that not a frame of this film was removed, in respectful obedience to Mr. Kubrick's artistry, that he himself came up with the digital "butterflies" and designed them.

Be that as it may, that's not the problem. The problem is that "Eyes Wide Shut", a intricate, finely nuance exploration of sexual relationships, is slapped with the same rate as American Pie, Something About Mary and every poo-poo-pee-pee-caca-am-I-gonna-get-laid-will-I-lose-my-virginity-before-the-prom flick. The MPAA has always maintained that it viewed violence in films as seriously as it did sex. We beg to differ - as would anyone who recently saw a Bruce Willis, an old Arnold Schwarzenegger or a John Woo, in which both good guys and bad guys shoot, kill, maim with wild abandon.

So here's the deal: since the MPAA insists that it gives violence the same scrutiny, and fairness, as sex, how about, for each bullet being shot, allowing ONE pelvic thrust?

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