Film: The Big Picture: In your dreams, Stanley

EYES WIDE SHUT (18) DIRECTOR: STANLEY KUBRICK STARRING:TOM CRUISE, NICOLE KIDMAN 159 MINS

So for the second time this summer we have the loudly vaunted return of a major film maker, an event so wired and shrill with hype that one might have imagined the future well-being of cinema depended on it. And, for the second time, the event offers the dispiriting prospect of a talent completely out of touch, seized up, ossified. Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut doesn't constitute the same disgrace as The Phantom Menace, but it is nonetheless a dismal and overwrought piece of work. I think a lot of people are going to be hugely disappointed by it.

Let me say, immediately, that this would be so with or without the hype. Kubrick's death in March this year necessarily made this film his swan- song, and gave Warner Brothers' publicity machine a boost that money couldn't buy. The film can't help that, no more than Kubrick could help dying, yet, judged simply on its own terms, Eyes Wide Shut feels like a dreadful miscalculation, of a kind that may inspire pity for its two famous stars.

That Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman could spend nearly two years working on it and not wonder if they were making an awful mistake is a matter of speculation; that both of them are made to look ridiculous is a matter of fact.

They play Dr Bill Harford and his wife Alice, who live with their seven- year-old daughter in an Upper West Side apartment of baronial luxury. We first see them preparing for a ritzy black-tie do, with Bill looking for his wallet and Alice having a quick preen in the mirror; the humdrum nature of these opening scenes tells us something's up, though we can't be sure what. The party they attend has the gilded pomposity of a Ferrero- Rocher advert and, before you know it, Alice is being chatted up by the ambassador himself, an improbable European smoothie with hair and tongue of silver - he dandyishly quotes Ovid and Wilde, our earliest indication that Frederic Raphael has been at work on the script.

Bill meanwhile has been summoned upstairs by his host (Sydney Pollack), who needs help with a young woman, naked and insensible from a drug overdose. At the end of this eventful evening the Harfords are back home, sharing a joint, when Alice starts telling Bill, with sadistic relish, about her sexual desire for a naval officer she glimpsed in a hotel lobby the previous summer. Now we may all have regrets about things we've said, stoned or otherwise, to loved ones. Kidman's confession is goadingly cruel, based on nothing more (it seems) than her resentment of Bill's complacency: he's never been jealous about her. Yet, the effect of her words on Cruise is to send him into a tailspin, a feverish nocturnal odyssey through New York and thence into his own dark sexual imaginings.

Kubrick has adapted his material from Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 Traumnovelle, set in Vienna prior to the First World War at a time when psycho-analysis was still a nascent discipline and erotic feeling was kept under respectable bourgeois wraps. So a story about a wife prompting her husband to a sexual coup de foudre might have an unsettling, transgressive force - in the early years of this century. But, transplant it to contemporary Manhattan, and the whole set-up becomes absurdly dated. How can Bill, a worldly modern guy, be so distressed by his wife's provocative fantasies? Has he never seen a dirty movie? To believe in his plight would require us to deny the ubiquity of sex in the Nineties and that is to deny the evidence of our own eyes. What's more, Alice hasn't even been unfaithful - hell, she didn't even talk to this officer - yet Bill acts as though their marriage is in trauma.

The basic argument of the film - that our desires will find us out - is thereafter pursued with leaden and humourless intensity. (If you really want laughs try reading Frederic Raphael's unwittingly hilarious memoir of Kubrick, Eyes Wide Open). While out on the prowl, Bill almost has sex with a streetwalker, encounters a theatrical costumier who pimps his teenage daughter to businessmen, and, finally and notoriously, bluffs his way into a cavernous Long Island mansion where a sinister-looking ritual is in progress. Men in capes and elaborate masks look on as a master of ceremonies drones some Latin incantation and enjoins a circle of masked women to undress down to G-strings.

It looks like Purgatorio directed by Peter Greenaway, but no - this, if you please, is an orgy, journey's end for Bill's disturbed fugue and the centrepiece of Kubrick's inquiry into the erotic imagination. Only it's not erotic at all - it's stilted, portentous, voyeuristic and colder than death. Indeed, it chimes with the whole style of the movie. It also points up something in Kubrick's film making that goes back as far as A Clockwork Orange, and it's a fear of sex.

What other director in the world would put Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise together in a film about sexual passion and not show them doing it?

The two stars are presented with the task of bringing a human touch to these inert, desiccated compositions, and both struggle miserably, because nothing of human life has been allowed access. Kidman drops out early on, which caused some regret among otherwise hostile reviewers. But, in truth, after her slo-o-o-ow tormenting speech to her husband I couldn't wait to see the back of her. By the end, every conversation has caught that stoned, draggy rhythm - you can almost take a nap between sentences. Her disappearance leaves Cruise to carry the brunt of the film, and he's simply not up to it, without either the depth of sorrow or the heat of obsessiveness to command the centre. He looks stricken when Kidman reveals her dirty secret, but it's the look of a college football champ who's just been told by the coach that he hasn't made the team.

His one distinctive moment occurs when, caped and masked, he is somehow singled out by the orgy master as an intruder. Then I realised how they could tell - Cruise is the shortest guy in the room. That said, even a really good actor would be stumped to inhabit a role as bafflingly prim as Bill, who makes you wonder what he'd have done if his wife had actually slept with the guy.... As it is, his spiritual and sexual emergencies seem implausible, a paranoid's dream of betrayal. Is that the clue to "getting" this film? That Cruise's journey to the dark side has been conducted within the walls of his unconscious? That it has been, in Edgar Allan Poe's phrase, "a dream within a dream"?

If so, it retains all that is repressed, controlled and withdrawn in Stanley Kubrick's film making.

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