The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 54.0°F | Overcast


Eyes Wide Shut

The dream odyssey

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Stanley Kubrick and Frederick Raphael, based on the Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler

With Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Rade Serbedzija, Todd Field, Vinessa Shaw

Here it is: the year’s first great movie, and Stanley Kubrick’s last (great) movie. It also comes as a venerate treasure trove of surprises, neatly subverting the expectations created by the film’s pre-release hype.

Surprise one. It’s a great, almost forgotten feeling to be at the mercy of a master storyteller, who is primarily concerned with the good old-fashioned concept of events, flowing into and causing another events -- what used to be called plot before the screenplays started to be created by blenders in a puree mode.

There’s this perfect couple, Bill Harford and his wife Alice (which cues a few subtle Lewis Carroll allusions) played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. They’re rich and beautiful, with one child and a lush New York apartment. But all happiness in this relationship (like in all others) hangs on a selective application of knowledge and ignorance (see the title) -- and when the scale is tipped too far in the favor of knowledge, this perfect relationship begins to deteriorate.

This is a pretty vague description, but more knowledge would lessen the enjoyment of letting go and following the smoothly-flowing plot.

Suprise two. It has an absolutely distinct look, nearly dazzling in its visuals -- not because these visuals are eye-poppingly spiffy (Kubrick’s forte in most of his oeuvre), but because of the unexpectedly grainy quality of the film. This isn’t an accident, of course: it’s clear Kubrick shot Eyes Wide Shut himself, and it looks precisely the way he wanted. The result is nearly indescribable, feeling both hyper-real like a home video (which this is anything but; each frame is painstakingly composed) and like a dream. This dreamy effect is crucial.

There are other visual pleasures, from an exceptional use of Christmas trees to bring (sometimes ironic) warmth to the surroundings, to a no-expenses-spared production design (most night-time shots of New York streets are, actually, filmed on the soundstage).

Surprise three. Despite almost everyone describing this film as a psycho-thriller (whatever this might mean), it belongs to a much more ancient and venerate genre. It’s a grand adventure, with Bill Harford recklessly plunging into the night, the city and whatever he might encounter. This part (roughly the film’s first half) is paced and filmed like a dream. As it floats through an increasingly bizarre world, always in the dead center of action and yet never directly participating in it, this nocturnal odyssey is exceptionally compelling simply because of its sheer unpredictability coupled with impeccable logic.

As the sleeper awakes and tries to recollect the dream which is already fading and shifting and dissolving, so Hartford spends the second half of Eyes Wide Shut to determine what, precisely, happened to him on the night of his strange journey. It’s here that Kubrick shows that he’s a master genre specialist, and it’s here that the film starts resembling a thriller, with mysterious clues, strangers, and riddles. I have to admit that I’m not sure that this part will be as effective on second viewing; after all, the knowledge of how it all ends might take the edge off excitement. On the other hand, I’m sure Kubrick has hidden some deeper layers of meaning to ponder.

Surprise four. It’s actually very well acted. Kidman is spectacular: Her part is not that big, but she carries it excellently, with the exception of an awkward opening scene, and she is dazzling in delivering two monologues describing her dreams (yes, that’s the film’s main theme).

One would also expect good work from such arthouse stars as Leelee Sobieski, Alan Cumming, or Rade Serbedzija -- and one won’t be disappointed here -- but it’s Cruise who’s surprisingly solid. He has to be, of course; he carries the picture. It’s nice to see that he can actually act, and do it well. One exception is when he has to act charismatic: Cruise accomplishes this by proudly displaying his teeth, all sixty of them or so, and the effect of this artificial charisma superposed on his natural appeal is rather weird.

Surprise five. Eyes Wide Shut is funny, and I’m certain it’s always intentional. Some sequences are so over the top in their morbid seriousness that there’s no doubt that they are done firmly tongue in cheek.

Surpsise six. For such a perfectionist as Kubrick was, this film is decidedly imperfect. There are obvious technical gaffes such as a reflection of a boom operator in a mirror in one scene and continuity errors in at least two others, but there are even more major ones. At least three sequences in Eyes Wide Shut feel overcooked: the opening at a party, the beginning of the last scene, and the grandiose orgy scene in the middle.

Oh yes, speaking of the orgy scene -- surprise seven. Whether Kubrick himself approved of digital masking of naughty bits in this sequence or it was done without his consent to please MPAA and gain a commerically viable R rating, doesn’t matter. What matters is that Kubrick himself would have never done such a shoddy job doing this, transforming several shots into Austin Powers moments. Clearly, Warner Brothers filmed only three or four digital masks (clothed and naked people), and then used them several times each. As a result, there are several sets of identical people in the different rooms at the same time.

There a lot of other things I can think of to say about Eyes Wide Shut (yes, there’s a lot of nudity; no, most of it is hardly exciting; yes, the use of music is exceptionally effective; no, this film really doesn’t cut it in the realism department, but then again, it’s not supposed to) -- but only one really deserves mention. Eyes Wide Shut features absolutely the most uplifting conclusion of all Kubrick movies. The ending is calm and understated, yet it feels downright triumphant. It also has the best closing line in quite some time.