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  • Writer's pictureRJ Smith

WHAT'S GOOD: Eyes Wide Shut (1999), a Film by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick bought the production rights to Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story) in the 1960s, and mulled over its realisation for his entire career. The project finally came to fruition in 1999 after what remains the longest shoot in the history of cinema (400 days).

The production was highly secretive. Rumours flew around of bizarre and oppressive conditions on set. Cruise and Kidman—then the highest profile couple on the planet—were kept separate unless shooting a scene in which they both appeared, but, oddly, were made to sleep in the bedroom used in the film.

Kubrick, widely regarded as the best director of his generation, died just days after submitting the final cut to the production studio, as though he survived just to see the project—what he called his greatest contribution to the art of cinema—realised.

After all of this, what was the result? “Manhattan porn,” according to Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw. “A grotesque, preposterous flop.”

Others got it. Janet Maslin of the New York Times, found it to be “a brilliantly provocative tour de force,” Roger Ebert gave it 3.5/4 stars and Australia’s leading critics Margaret and David gave it five stars apiece.

In totality, the film’s reception was mixed. But good art is almost always misunderstood, at least in the context in which it is made. That is a big part of why I write these reviews. Time vindicates genius, and time will vindicate this film, while everyone will forget about the Peter Bradshaws—those too obsequious to the fashions of their times—of this world.

By way of plot, as with all of my reviews so far there is very little to speak of here. This is no coincidence. Good books and films focus on characters, not plot. Or, to put it in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words: “character is plot; plot is character.”

Insofar as there is a plot it is as follows.

Bill Hartford is a medical doctor who lives with his wife Alice, a former gallery manager, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They attend a party given by one of Bill’s wealthy patients, Victor. Alice sees Bill being hit on by some attractive female guests which taps a deep well of insecurity and resentment in her mind.

The next night, while smoking marijuana, Alice confronts Bill, whom she suspects of having had an affair with the two young women. She tries to make him jealous by describing her sexual fantasies about a young naval officer staying in the same hotel as the couple on a recent vacation. This is an unhappy revelation for Bill, who has hitherto believed his wife to be chaste, free of sexual desire except for him.

During this exchange, Bill is called away to attend to the grieving daughter of a patient who has just died. When Bill arrives the woman tells him she is engaged to be married, and moments later tries to kiss Bill and professes her love for him. Bill resists her advances, excuses himself from the house and, his mind in a state of turmoil, takes a walk through the East Village.

He chances upon the venue where his friend Nick, the pianist at the previous evening’s party, is doing a short residency. Bill arrives just as Nick finishes his set, and just before he goes to another, far more mysterious gig. Nick relates that he sometimes plays at bizarre parties where everyone is masked and he himself blindfolded. Intrigued by this, Bill coaxes Nick to tell him the address and, armed also with the password for admittance, takes a late night trip to a costume store owned by one of his former patients.

After some strange events unfold within the store involving the new owner’s young daughter (and two middle aged Asian men), Bill leaves with his costume and mask and travels to the party. When he arrives he witnesses some kind of strange high society sex cult ritual, eerily prescient of what is currently being reported in the media.

That, in the main, is the plot of a film which is nearly three hours long.

In other words, the pace is slow, but this is one of the film’s greatest strengths. It is not what happens to Bill which is the focus, but Bill himself. The audience is captive to his restive state of mind as he grapples with the thoughts of his wife’s fantasies. And there are other things goading him too, like his place in the world as a putatively respectable man with his own sexual desires, desires to be free and to discover new things—transgressive things—things he probably did not have the chance to experience as a young man working to attain the elevated position he now enjoys.

My favourite shots are of Bill walking through the East Village (filmed on a treadmill with a green screen, adding to their dreamlike quality) trying to gather his thoughts, a man in one of the most vibrant places of the world who could not be more alone. So alone is he, in fact that he accepts the advances of a young student in the streets who offers him sex for money, a transaction he goes through with until his wife interrupts him with a phone call and he has a last minute change of heart.

In fact, Bill does not get laid once in the entire movie, and the only sex scenes depicted are so stylised as to lack any hint of sensuality. Those who think this is a soft core porn film will be disappointed. What the film achieves brilliantly is the thing all artists and writers should aspire to—mood. If you can capture a mood you can capture a world, or more precisely, a person’s place in it.

As you would expect, the cinematography is brilliant and captivating, despite being set in New York and most of the shooting occurring in London. Kubrick, a New Yorker, was a self-imposed exile from the United States, having resented (like Paul Bowles, the author of Let it Come Down) the direction he felt the country was going in. New York was at the coalface of this descent, the apotheosis of mid twentieth century consumerism.

This is another intriguing element to the film—its autobiographical aspect. Like Schnitzler, to whose book Kubrick is faithful except for setting the film in his native city rather than Schnitzler’s (Vienna), Kubrick was the son of a doctor. Both were from middle class Jewish households and had strong artistic predilections from a young age. There is no question the book had a profound effect on Kubrick and was a project he felt compelled for many years to realise.

According to Tom Cruise in an interview with Roger Ebert:

The apartment in the movie was the New York apartment [Stanley] and his wife Christianne lived in. He recreated it. The furniture in the house was furniture from their own home. Of course the paintings were Christianne's paintings. It was as personal a story as he's ever done. - Tom Cruise

This is Kubrick’s magnum opus, a deeply personal film and a love letter to his city of birth, one from which he had been so long estranged and towards which, as with me and my hometown, he felt a strange mixture of resentment and love. Human beings, like many animals, often want life to end where it began, to return to the beginning. Despite dying in England, in a sense Kubrick achieved this through this film.

In terms of performances, Nicole Kidman’s is the weakest. On the other hand, she was perhaps the only person who could have played the role, because only Tom Cruise could have realised Bill Hartford as well as he did, and perhaps only his real life wife was capable of executing the strange demands placed on the two leads. The scene where Kidman is stoned is particularly bad, but the totality of her performance is not bad enough to ruin the film.

All of the supporting roles are excellent, from the neurotic and grieving daughter (Marie Richardson), to the Epstein-esque high society figure (Sydney Pollack) to the pianist who leads Bill into the darkness (Todd Field).

The other thing which warrants mention are the colours. The film is set near Christmas and what stands out are the pink and blue neon lights. Jim Jarmusch says cities have distinctive colours, which was a large aspect of what he wanted to capture in Night on Earth. New York’s are on full display here, albeit recreated (aside from principal photography) in London.

The only quibble I have with this film besides some of Kidman’s scenes is the title. Traumnovelle was translated as Rien qu’un rêve in French; Nothing but a dream. I think this would, if used, have put frontally in the audience’s mind the fact that it is not clear what is real and what is imagined in this film. Perhaps the failure to make this clearer is why—along with the hopeless marketing, which does not in any way capture the energy of the film—it is so misunderstood.

All in all however, this is the crown jewel on a glittering career, Kubrick’s finest contribution to an art form he spent his whole life mastering.

What's Good are short reviews of under-appreciated or misunderstood works.



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