Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick's last waltz is an Odyssey of bedside manners. This contemporary epic tale centers around a medical man, his wife, his child, his life, his complacency, his awareness, his receptiveness, and, above all, his personal nature as he wanders through a world he either never imagined concerned him or believed he had managed somehow to escape.

© Warner Bros.
(all rights reserved)

Everything goes according to plan until he is unexpectedly startled from his dream-like reality, only to find himself driven forward by loosened emotions and drawn onward into the unknown. Once torment enters and takes hold of his mind, his world becomes irretrievably altered and his is confronted with a new and harsher reality that necessity forces him to experience. Can he redeem his own life?

Content with his beautiful wife and a beautiful apartment safely situated in the middle of New York City, Dr. William Harford (Tom Cruise) moves methodically through his life. Proud of his status as medical advisor to the rich and famous, he has mastered the routine of both smiling the right way and saying the right thing on practically any occasion. If any barriers prevent him from getting what he wants, his winning ways and medical ID usually suffice to bridge the gap. As Christmas nears, he prepares for his mandatory attendance at the elaborate annual party of influential friend and patient, Mr. Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). Anyone who is anyone will be there. The couple says goodnight to their daughter Helena, who intends to enjoy the evening watching the televised "Nutcracker," and invites the babysitter to joyfully partake of the fruits of their well-stocked refrigerator. It is, after all, the season of joy and all is well in the kingdom of the mighty as the evening starts. But the voyage is only beginning.

photo: Manuel Harlan
© 1999 Warner Bros.
(all rights reserved)

The extravagant party is a typically fabulous uptown New York Christmas event for movers and shakers with a touch of class and a taste for the exceptional. Smiles are exchanged as conversations are shared in a place where everything is of the moment and nothing is momentous. The Doctor and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) glide easily between the elite, fitting in perfectly among their peers. This man undoubtedly has it all and can afford to feel somewhat, though not inordinately, superior to an old friend and ex-dropout from med school when he suddenly espies him playing piano at the party and points this out to his wife. The obvious contrast on the social scale between the two, one in attendance and one at work, is sharply exemplified when the pianist, enjoying a drink with his old acquaintance, is shortly and subtly called away by a waiter with the remark, "I need you for a moment." Two beautiful models rapidly swoop down upon Dr. Harford like sirens and, almost harpy-like, attempt to whisk him away when, unexpectedly, a messenger of the host requests his services for an emergency. One of the female guests, now spread eagled naked across a chair, has inadvertently begun to OD while the host was fucking her. The good doctor once again has an opportunity to prove his ability and agility in all situations as he revives the beautiful vixen, rescuing her from near death, and proceeds to tell her that she desperately needs to join a rehab program. Showing further acumen and responsibility, he suggests, to the host's chagrin, that the woman shouldn't leave the premises for at least an hour, until she has had sufficient time to recuperate from the near catastrophe. This untimely situation inconveniently puts a cramp in the host's social style.

The doctor's wife, during the evening, finds herself slightly tipsy from the flowing champagne and caught in the arms of Hungarian seducer Sandor Szavost (Sky Dumont), a kind of Don Juan cum Dracula, on the dance floor. Although invited by the guest to the next floor for a quick sojourn among the bronzes in the sculpture gallery, she manages to refuse the enticing offer.

At home once again, the couple enjoys the leisurely and slightly legal infringement of a joint during which the wife's insecurities (with regard to their marital relationship and mutual devotion) reveal themselves in a somewhat humorous way. She suspects that her husband might have slept with the two women at the party when he abruptly disappeared. She herself, after all, was not beyond temptation with the Hungarian. In what begins as a seemingly frivolous exchange between the two, jealousy and distrust start to rear their destructive heads and a secret is revealed that shatters the "good" doctor's image of his own life. The earth breaks open beneath him and the path into night becomes a long one. The next hours will be crucial in determining his future. His wife will also topple on the edge of a precipice, incited by wariness, distrust, and feelings of disorientation, as she becomes powerless against the dream- like forces of a parallel world.

Like Dante wandering through the corridors of an urban hell, but without the helpful guidance of Virgil, the physician soon finds himself in need of urgent help. The charmed life of the good doctor, whose home, as that of his usual acquaintances, is adorned with magnificent canvases, appears at first to live among the blues and reds of a pre-raphaelite masterpiece. Even his wife has hair reminiscent of yet another Dante's love. As the second day dawns, however, and the crisis begins, the colors begin to separate more sharply and the icy tones of home become apparant as well as the warm, dark red hues of the nighttime which leads him forward to seek a solution and possible retribution. As the camera twists, turns, and tracks constantly behind him, we watch the man move helplessly, if not hopelessly, among a world that sucks him down deeper as initiate into the unexpected. The tormenting image that has taken hold of his mind rages back sporadically throughout his journey, but the colorful events taking place during the night show that it is not quite as black and white as he visualizes it. The dazzling lights of celebration, which adorn the city of night, linger like a nocturnal mist both indoors and outdoors, throughout streets, hallways and inner chambers. There is both an eerie silence and a bizarre noise spread among the activities of this nocturnal world. Creatures are stirring everywhere.

Slogans, titles, and names appear in the background and thrust us, in an almost primordial way, toward their original roots. In so doing, they often bring along a new reflexive meaning within the context of the story. Immediately preceding his encounter with the streetwalker, Dr. Harford passes a shop called "Nipped in the Bud". After purchasing a "New York Post" at a streetcorner newspaper stand with the headline "Lucky to Be Alive" printed in bold letters across the front page, Dr. Harford becomes aware that he is being shadowed by a stranger. As he stops and watches the man, we see a newspaper dispenser for the "Voice" (another noted N.Y. weekly) clearly visible in white letters screaming out from a red background; the silent message becoming still more strongly punctuated by the duplicate colors of the "Stop" sign near the stranger. The two women at Ziegler's party want to take the doctor "to the end of the rainbow" and he does eventually wind up at Rainbow Cosume Rental. The doctor and his wife have a daughter named after the Roman beauty Helena, once abducted for her charms. The password to the house at Glen Cove is "Fidelio." Scattered throughout the movie, myriad signposts of reality become trappings of what could be regarded as a quirky labyrinth that offers experiences similar to those of an acid trip going wrong. The entourage of bizarre characters encountered along the way seem to come from some demented epos, but contains a variety of people found regularly (although not usually in such rapidly consecutive abundance) in everyday life: the sirens, the seducer, the musician, the businessman, the vixen, the whore, the costumier, the nymphet, and, most uniquely of all, the Grand Inquisitor.

Travelling through the diversity of the nine circles, the centerpiece of the movie is reached when the good doctor attends the ritualistic evening at the mansion house in Glen Cove (only one letter short of coven). As if entering a canvas of Hieronymous Bosch, we are bombarded with countless memorable images, which bear down hauntingly upon us from all sides. For this voluptuous domain of the unknown where life is at a tilt, Dr. Harford dons a costume and wears a mask in order to maintain anonymity and not appear conspicuous. Despite these precautions, a long-legged, mysterious beauty (reminiscent of the lady in the bathtub from "The Shining"), whose striking length is further accentuated by the circle of feathers surrounding her mask, immediately recognizes him. She warns him, in a whisper, of impending danger. The epic voyage has not yet reached its end. This entire sequence, though extremely realistic in form, is equally unnerving as the dream sequence in "The Shining". (This "orgy" scene takes 18 minutes of screen time, making it equal in length to the opening party sequence of this movie; parallels and contrasts between the two prove fascinating.) The bizarre aspects connected with entrance to the mansion house and events taking place inside this vast domain make it immediately clear that Dr. Harford is trespassing, through a deliberate act of transgression, over the borderline to the unknown and ultimately willing himself into a situation far beyond his own imaginings. He is gambling with his own life, having been driven to a point where he decides he must do so. His search no longer allows him to respect established boundaries. He is not a soul, like some tragic figures, in search of "all or nothing," but, more poignantly, a man searching for clarity and knowledge. Until now, the dangers surrounding him have, one following upon the other, been cut short of disaster, but here he reaches a moment of potential danger which he may not be capable of controlling and a situation from which he may not be able to escape. Once he has made the voyage full circle, he begins the rendezvous a second time. The repercussions of what he has undergone have not been able to cutail his interest, but further incited his curiosity, this time with a twinge of terror.

What we know is not always compatible with truth. We often only know what we choose to know. Knowledge can be withheld either by others or our selves, even from ourselves. We can ignore or deny what we choose not to know. If we know that we do not know or do not wish to know, we know we are entering a world with our eyes wide shut.

An abundance of similarities and parallel situations throughout this film harken one to the kind of atmosphere, edginess, eeriness and subtlety found in Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby". From the first scene, where we watch the routine lifestyle of a well-to-do couple, until the moment we accompany the protagonist upon his descent into the hole of darkness, there is something very real and yet other-worldly about this picture. Although these movies do not truly resemble each other, the aspects of pure terror and lurking horror are equally and ever present in both. Each one is an epic of personal torment and could be placed into the category of love stories attended by internal crises, but also (and more interestingly) among tales of intense psychological terror. Both entail extensive personal voyages among frightening creatures with dangers appearing inopportunely at every twist and turn.

Once deprived of false security, Dr. Harford's curiosity cannot be satiated and so he forges onward armed with hope, relative innocence, a sense of sufferance and a quest for redemption toward an evasive unknown. As other worlds around him open their gaping mouths to reveal themselves, he seeks shelter and false relief through further revelation. Like the vast confines of the hotel in "The Shining," the mansion house holds the most terrifying realities of all, but the question remains, as it does in their marriage, whether these are, in fact, truths or only masked performances. Lighting Cameraman Larry Smith has deliciously framed the images from beginning to end. Production designers Les Tomkins and Roy Walker have created the exciting and sumptuous environment for those images that are so deliciously framed.

The only disappointing moments in the movie arrive near the end, with the too lengthy and detailed explanations of Mr. Ziegler in the room with the pool table and the conversation that takes place between Mr. Harford and his wife during the superfluous scene in the toy store. It might have been more effective to end the movie when the doctor enters the bedroom to discover his wife sleeping near the unexpected object seen on the pillow next to her. One should remember that Mr. Kubrick has, on past occasions, further edited certain films following their release (e.g. 2001 and The Shining). Unfortunately, he will not be able to do so this time around. What could easily have been counted as another masterwork from his hand, is damaged solely by the last scene. In an attempt to resolve the situation between the main characters with some excruciatingly banal dialogue, the magic is sacrificed and brought back down to earth in a manner that is not worthy of someone like Kubrick. Nevertheless, the work, in its entirety, is stunning and should not be underestimated in its depth. It is a thinking person's film.

This is Cruise's film as well as Kubrick's. With a long and impressive list of performances behind him, he manages to project a new character with the necessary edge while portraying this successful metropolitan man who usually contends once thrown into difficult circumstances and despite crisis. Kidman is equally impressive as the symbiotic catalyst in the relationship, but commands less screen time and threatens, therefore, to become almost a secondary focal point. The revelation that initiates the search through darkness, however, is contained in the wife's monologue, which is performed stunningly. As she undergoes a transformation that contains many nuances of feeling and emotion, love and pain, displaying both strengths and vulnerabilities, the content of their marriage is confronted with potential disaster capable of bringing about the collapse of what has, perhaps, until now been too smooth a ride. All of the cast are superb in their convincing portrayals and contribute immensely to the tale, no matter how long or short their appearances onscreen may be. Unfortunately, the too humorous performance of Alan Cumming, an otherwise talented actor, in the role of the desk clerk becomes more of a tour-de-force for the comedian and momentarily breaks the curiously woven atmosphere.

Meaning no disrespect to Arthur Schnitzler, we can leave any further analysis here of Traumnovelle, upon which the movie is based, aside. Kubrick demanded that neither Cruise nor Kidman read it beforehand, most likely in order to encourage an enhanced openness and stronger ensemble development of the issues that had to be dealt with. The book was a starting point in Kubrick's mind for the work to be created and can easily be left, since presently we are considering the screen version, for a more lengthy comparative essay elsewhere in the future. Let it, however, be noted that the movie has remained remarkably faithful to the original work, albeit in a Kubrick kind of way. His original wish to realize it as a film dates from 28 years ago (shortly after the completion of Lolita), but was cut short following the appeal of his wife Christianne not to embark on this project at such an early stage in their marriage. While recently making preparations for a new project called A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), Kubrick was forced to wait until the technology could catch up with his ideas. Therefore, he decided, the perfect time had come to make this movie. He not only produced and directed the film, but also co-wrote the screenplay. And now it belongs to the world.

Chalk another one up for Stanley.

An interesting footnote: The American censors, under the name of the MPAA's Classification and Ratings Administration, were only willing to give the film an R rating after specific images onscreen during the orgy sequence had been masked by digitally created figures. According to Cruise, Kubrick was worried about the movie getting an NC-17 rating as the result of certain scenes. Some newspapers won't place ads for movies that have NC-17 ratings, just as certain TV stations refrain from broadcasting promos for such films. An organization without any real rules of thumb, the MPAA appears to make decisions as the movies come along. Kubrick, determined to get an R rating, had hoped to avoid this problem by taking certain precautionary measures during filming. Cruise says,"that's what he was dealing with when he was in the editing process and what he discussed. He didn't wanna cut into the shots, but he felt that if he took the digital effects and just covered, you know, (it would be possible to) deliver an R rating." The European cut is not only raw and intense, but majestic in its portraiture. The nude shot of Cruise and Kidman in the mirror has a sharp edge and realistic beauty to it. (One senses the closeness between them in the manner they address one another physically and verbally.) The orgy sequence is an overwhelming bacchanal with an amazing entourage of masked faces that make it frighteningly reminiscent, as already mentioned, of a Bosch painting. The viewer is not only swallowed up by the situations, but by the images. What this misses in the American cut, I, for one, have been lucky enough not yet to see. It would seem that the days of William Hays are still with us in so many ways.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett