Film: Kubrick: faithful in his fashion

Eyes Wide Shut Director: Stanley Kubrick Starring: Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Sydney Pollack (159 mins; 18)

`So here it is at last, the distinguished thing," as Henry James, prolix to the end, is alleged to have murmured on his deathbed. The distinguished thing that we're concerned with, though, is not death but Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick's last, indeed posthumous film, whose title, eerily evocative of a death mask's blank intensity, has long been a source of rumour and speculation. Well, now it's here at last. And, given the mostly unenthusiastic press it's already had, the question you're probably asking is no longer "How good is it?" but rather "Is it really as bad as they say?" Is it just another of the American cinema's big, fat, hyped-up nothings?

By now everyone ought to know the film's plot, which was adapted from Dream Story, Arthur Schnitzler's novella by Kubrick himself and Frederic Raphael. He (Tom Cruise) is Bill Harford, an affluent Park Avenue doctor, to all outward appearance contentedly married. She (Nicole Kidman) is his wife Alice, who, under the influence of a late-night joint, suddenly confesses to having had a disturbing erotic fantasy about a young naval officer she'd observed, though never once spoken to, while on a family vacation the previous year. During the night following this revelation, Bill embarks on an initiatory journey of self-laceration and self-interrogation which culminates in his gatecrashing a bizarre masked orgy (a spectacular set-piece that has prompted comparisons with Ken Russell but is actually reminiscent of one of Joseph Losey's more "decadent" confections Eva or Boom, or else, were one very unkind, of the secret society that Homer joins in a classic episode of The Simpsons).

The problem with Eyes Wide Shut, and to a degree it's one of Kubrick's own making, is that no nuances, no half-measures, are permitted. If it isn't a masterpiece, then it's a catastrophe. The notion that it might, like lots of other honourable films, be "pretty good", say, is inadmissable. Kubrick pretty good? Is the Pope pretty Catholic?

There is, too, what might be called the Fallacy of Retentive Admiration, to which many of his more fanatical devotees have fallen victim. Because Kubrick has made his share of great films, and perhaps also because he died only days after completing this one, then Eyes Wide Shut must be his last, haunting masterwork. Unfortunately, it isn't. It is, nevertheless, a unique cinematic object, interesting for the same reasons that it utterly fails as conventional melodrama.

Yes, it's easy to enumerate its flaws, and none of them is negligible: the often risible dialogue; the awkwardly asymmetric structure (Kidman's character disappears for much too long a stretch of the narrative); the nagging fact, above all, that not nearly enough, to a modern mentality, seems to be at stake. So your wife once lusted after a young man in sexy white ducks? Who wouldn't? And who today would regard so trifling a lapse as sufficient cause to jeopardise a happy, apparently fulfilled marriage?

It is, however, precisely to that anachronistic disproportion between act and reaction that the film's originality can be traced. It's an incongruous reference, I know, but I was reminded of nothing so much as Alan Ayckbourn's play How the Other Half Love, in which the living-rooms of two neighbouring couples seamlessly merge into one another on the same stage. In a way hard to communicate in print, Kubrick's contemporary Manhattan contrives to share the screen with Schnitzler's turn-of-the-century Vienna. Each has the same cast of characters (the silver-templed Hungarian roue, the bohemian fancy-dress costumier with his nightmarishly nubile daughter, the masked orgiasts), the same taste in music (in Kubrick's case, a sumptuously schmaltzy Shostakovich waltz) and, most startlingly, the same set of moral and marital values, which the scenario has bravely left un-updated. Eyes Wide Shut can, in consequence, be read as a defence - in the 1990s! - of abstinence rather than indulgence, of commitment rather than licence. It may not work, one may even find oneself wondering what the point of it all is, but it resembles no other film around.

Some of it is also, despite what you may have heard, incredibly erotic. Not the orgy, even though it's filmed with virtuosic aplomb. The really sexy scenes, magnificently captured by a Steadicam as fluid and flexible as a human eye, are those of the Harfords' domesticity, their day-in-day-out intimacy. What Kubrick portrays is the eroticism of marriage (to which a bachelor like myself may be especially sensitive), of the mutual availability of two bodies so accustomed to rubbing against each other they've become as smooth as pebbles. I know of few moments in the modern cinema as intensely carnal as that in the film's opening sequence, when Kidman, sharing the bathroom with Cruise, stands up from the lavatory seat and casually adjusts her panties. It's erotic not because of its potential for voyeurism, but because Cruise pays absolutely no attention to her. (Crucial to the power of the scene is our knowledge that Cruise and Kidman are themselves married.)

Eyes Wide Shut is ultimately, and movingly, about fidelity, and it's therefore natural that it itself should be so unexpectedly faithful to Schnitzler's novella. Above, I described it as a unique cinematic object, which is probably a friendly way of saying that it's more interesting as an "object", a curiosity, than as an enjoyable, satisfying, coherent film. A pity, because it sometimes comes close to being both. Unlike many ambitious directors, though, who bite off more than they can chew, Kubrick attempts to chew more than he's bitten off. But even that, don't you see, is interesting.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own