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