Film Review: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

in Movies & TV Shows3 months ago (edited)


The last film in a director’s filmography is seldom the best. That applies even to the greatest among the film makers, and Stanley Kubrick wasn’t an exception. At least that was the general impression among the critics after his 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut, finished days before his death and released few months later. At first, it wasn’t considered to be on the same level as his earlier masterpieces like Lolita, Dr Strangelove, 2001 and A Clockwork Orange. It was even considered to be a major disappointment. Only after some time Eyes White Shut was reevaluated and recognised as a film not only worthy of Kubrick’s filmography, but actually a very fine piece of cinema.

Genre of the film was often matter of intense debate among critics and film scholars, but it would be most appropriate to describe it as combination of erotic drama, conspiracy thriller and black comedy. It was based on Traumnovelle or Dream Story, 1926 novella by Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler. The plot setting, originally Vienna at the beginning of 20th Century, is changed to modern New York City. Protagonist, played by Tom Cruise, is Dr. William “Will” Harford, physician who appears to have everything most of people would want – successful practice with plenty of rich and influential patients, gorgeous wife Alice (played by Nicole Kidman) and 7-year old daughter Helena (played by Madison Eginton). Everything changes after he and Alice are invited to Christmas party held by Will’s rich and influential friend Victor Ziegler (played by Sydney Pollack). He begins to flirt with two models, while Alice is being pursued by charming Hungarian art collector Sandor Szavost (played by Sky Du Mont). Although nothing actually happens, both spouses discuss marital fidelity after returning home. Alice surprises William by admitting that she fantasised about sex with another man. When Will is called to home of his one patients who just died, his distraught daughter (played by Marie Richardson) admits that she loves him. Affected by unusual experience, Will begins to wander around city streets with vague idea that he could indulge in sex with other women. When Nick Nightingale (played by Todd Field), jazz pianist and his old friend, tells him about bizarre sex orgies under masks being held at remote mansion, Will decides to smuggle himself in. That decision leads to series of bizarre and frightening events that would turn his life upside down.

Initial negative reactions to Eyes Wide Shut can be explained by Kubrick’s trademark perfectionism. By that time Kubrick was known for taking extensive time to prepare his film production, and in the case of this film process took more a decade after his penultimate film Full Metal Jacket. Such long wait resulted in increasingly and unrealistically high expectations by critics and audience, which weren’t likely to be met. To make things even worse, Kubrick’s film was supposed to explicitly deal with the subject of sex. And, as such, sensationalist media and PR machine used that to hype the film even further. There were rumours about Eyes Wide Shut containing large amounts of sex scenes and that it was actually conceived as pornographic film, and there were even rumours about actual sexual activity on the set. Anyone familiar with neo-puritan standards of 1990s Hollywood and its PG-13 ethos knew that nothing groundbreaking in terms of film erotica could come from this film. With Kubrick dead, Warner Bros. studio was free to edit it via CGI to hide “naughty” bits in order to get R-rating and even the unrated version proved to be nothing special, at best/worst with the standards of nudity and sex you can expect today from average episode of Game of Thrones or similar series on streaming services. Nevertheless, many critics still felt cheated when the film turned out to be as less erotic than expected.

Some critics expressed their disappointment by claiming that Eyes Wide Shut was nothing more than a joke the old cinema master played on his most devout worshipper. According to them, he deliberately made a film that runs for two hours and half and in which “nothing happens”. Such extensive length is, however, something quite normal for Kubrick’s films and, furthermore, unlike many of his less talented colleagues, Kubrick was always able to match quantity with quality. Kubrick with his meticulous perfectionist direction allows audience to get fully immersed into unusual, cold and often frightening world in which his protagonists live – in this case milieu of upper-class New Yorkers. Known for his misanthropy, Kubrick delights in showing the dark side of American elite. Long dolly shots are used to show spacious interiors of luxury apartments as source of agoraphobia and tension. Cinematography by Larry Smith is excellent, especially in emphasising colours and sharp contrast in order to express emotional state of protagonist. Kubrick again shows himself as expert of using music to enhance films – original soundtrack by Jocelyn Pollock is well-complemented by clever choice of pop soundtrack and classics like Shostakovich’s Waltz. No 2 from Suite for Variety Orchestra, used well to convey atmosphere of decadence in early 20th Century Europe, not that different from decadence in late 20th Century America.

Eyes Wide Shut also benefits from the script Kubrick co-wrote with Frederic Raphael. It plays on sharp contrast between facade and reality. Good doctor owes his good life to having to face death and misery during his line of work. His seemingly happy marriage is in danger of being destroyed through few innocent flirts and fantasies. Seemingly responsible father and husband, motivated mostly by boredom, engages in adventures like someone in puberty. And the very same palace paraded by pillars of New York society is also a place where naked women are to be treated for drug overdose. The same effect is underlined with perfect casting. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who were still married during the production and functioned as Hollywood’s supercouple, puts their celebrity to good use. Cruise, known as one the actors with greatest ego in Hollywood, simply shines as a man with irresistible charm who has women (and, apparently, even some men) throwing themselves at his feet, but ultimately reveals himself to be a weak, shallow and not particularly intelligent. Nicole Kidman is even better as stunning beauty torn between her life of domestic duty and her own wild sexual fantasies.

Supporting cast is wonderful, especially in the scenes which the characters interact with protagonist in unexpected ways. Swedish actress Marie Richardson is wonderful as woman who goes through emotional roller coaster between grief and long-suppressed lust. Todd Field, who would later make a great career as director, is also effective as an old friend who gets protagonist into trouble. Croatian actor Rade Šerbedžija, one of the big stars of Yugoslav cinema who would later be typecast in the roles of Russian gangsters, makes great entry into Hollywood with small but darkly humorous role of eccentric costume owner who uses his nubile daughter (played by Leelee Sobieski) for some dark business arrangements. Surprisingly good performance is also provided by Sydney Pollack, famed producer and director who replaced legendary Harvey Keitel during the production.

At the end of the day, Eyes Wide Shut is a superbly directed, brilliantly written and excellently acted film that represents quality cinema at its best. Just as it stood over many other film makers with general quality of his films, Kubrick proved that he could make swan song better than almost anyone else.

RATING: 9/10 (++++)

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Such a fantastic movie! Also, it has the amazing Nicole Kidman.

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