Thursday, June 9, 2016

Eyes Wide Shut

3.5/4

Starring: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Todd Field

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Sexual Content, Nudity, Language and Some Drug-Related Material

Aside from "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace," there was no movie more anticipated than Stanley Kubrick's final film, "Eyes Wide Shut."  Due to its provocative marketing campaign, Kubrick's insistence on secrecy (which led to all kinds of wild rumors), its legendarily long shoot, and the combined star power of then-Hollywood super-couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, the fervor and anticipation was felt even by nine-year-old me, who had no idea who any of these people were.

As moved as I am at the thought of the general public being excited about a film by a world class filmmaker rather than a cheap marketing ploy like "Twilight," "Eyes Wide Shut" is not a mainstream film.  This is an art film through and through, demanding deep concentration and thought.  The public reacted predictably, with the box office numbers plummeting after opening weekend.  Still, it remains Kubrick's most profitable film.

"Eyes Wide Shut" defies easy description.  It contains elements of drama, suspense, horror, romance and eroticism.  The best attempt I can make is to call it a psychosexual thriller about marriage, fidelity and the conflicts between them.  Still, that's only scratching the surface.

Bill (Cruise) and Alice (Kidman) are an upper-class couple living in New York City.  He is a successful doctor and she is raising their child while she looks for a new job (her art gallery went belly up).  They go to a Christmas party hosted by a friend of Bill's, Victor Ziegler (Pollack).  Although the arrive together like all respectable couples, they eventually separate.  Bill goes to do a little flirting with pretty women and is called away to help Victor with a woman who has overdosed in his bedroom.  Alice succumbs to the charms of a Hungarian lothario (Sky Dumont).  The next night, while high on pot, they get into an argument about each other's behavior at the party.  Bill claims that what he did was defensible because he didn't have sex with anyone and flirting is a "guy" thing.  Alice counters that she is a sexual being too, and that a year ago she became so enamored with a sailor at a hotel who glanced at her that she was willing to give up everything to be with him.  This of course throws Bill's carefully built life into question, and he goes off on a journey of sexual discovery.

For a movie that's about sex, there's actually very little in it.  This is not pornography.  Kubrick seeks to explore the sexual behaviors, feelings and insecurities that people have.  As such, more is revealed through character interaction and dialogue than sex.  There is some sex for those who are wondering, but considering the context, it's not going to do much for the libido.

The performances are top notch.  Despite being in every scene, Tom Cruise is the weak link.  He's effective, but fails to submerge his stardom into his character.  It's a good performance, but I was always aware that I was watching Tom Cruise.  Nicole Kidman is excellent, giving one of her best performances as a mature woman with healthy sexual appetites.  Kidman spends a substantial amount of her screen time nude (and it's really her...the actress has never used a body double for her nude scenes).  The late Sydney Pollack, taking over for Harvey Keitel (who shot his scenes, but was unavailable for reshoots, necessitating recasting) is great as Bill's somewhat sleazy friend.  Todd Field, Rade Serbedzija, Leelee Sobieski, Vinessa Shaw and Marie Richardson also appear.

The film looks and sounds great.  Kubrick, a notorious perfectionist (in one instance, an actor tapped on a window.  Kubrick liked the scene but not the recorded sound, so he flew the actor back to the set to reshoot it), has meticulously crafted every shot.  Nothing is left to chance or coincidence.  Every image, movement and sound has been deliberately chosen.  The score by Jocelyn Pook and cinematography by Larry Smith are exceptional.  Kubrick's persistence has paid off.  This is a film that hits all the right notes and is a joy to get lost in.  Ironically, while the film is set in New York City, it was filmed in London due to Kubrick's fear of travel.  The methods used to create New York City are absolutely convincing.

It is impossible to talk about the film without mentioning the MPAA's disgusting decision to give the initial cut of the film an NC-17.  CGI figures were added to the infamous orgy scene to avoid the "kiss of death" rating.  While Kubrick proposed this idea had the film gotten the NC-17, a perfectionist like him would have been horrified at how it turned out.  Having seen the theatrical cut, let me tell you that it was an embarrassment.  It jerked you out of the spell that Kubrick so carefully weaved, and looked painfully obvious.

What's especially irritating is that there was no reason for the MPAA to do it.  This is a movie for adults.  Teenagers by and large would have no interest in seeing it.  And if they did because they were cinephiles, chances are they were mature enough to see the sex in this scene.  Especially considering that under the circumstances, it's terrifying rather than erotic.  Ditto for the imagined sex scene between Alice and the unnamed sailor.  Altering it, particularly in such a galling way, was a travesty.

Fortunately, the unrated version is available and you don't have to watch the MPAA-mandated bastardization.

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