Film: Kubrick: faithful in his fashion

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