July 31, 2007

Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick; 1999)

Eyes Wide Shut

Way back when in 1999, I recall seeing THAT Time magazine cover with Tom + Nicole and reading the featured article… even as an ickle 12 year old I couldn’t escape the hoopla that surrounded the release of Eyes Wide Shut! And yet, despite my curiosity at the time, I’ve never had the desire to watch it in the years following its release. In case you didn’t know, I’m something of a self-confessed Kidman fanboy so you’d think the opportunity to check out Nikki-in-da-nude would provide ample motivation for a young man like myself… but my absolute distaste for Tom Cruise (one of a select group of actors whose presence in a film actually repels me) coupled with a growing disenchantment with Stanley Kubrick (or at least his stature in the canon) has thwarted that potential viewing. Until now, that is. Note that I bought the DVD in a charity shop, and that my motivation behind the purchase was the opportunity to watch the final one of Kidman’s supposedly ‘great’ performances that I hadn’t seen… so you can probably imagine my surprise when, following the initial confrontation between Bill and Alice Harford, I realised that I was becoming quite enamoured with the film. And OMG Cruise wasn’t horrendously bad?! And then, about an hour into the film, during the scene in the Rainbow store, I realised that I was actually very much in love with what was on-screen. My beliefs have been turned upside down, and I like it!

Eyes Wide Shut forms such a remarkable contrast to his only other ‘great’ film imo: 2001…. Whereas the latter probably couldn’t be any more grandiose, Kubrick’s final film narrows in on a considerably more intimate setting: that of the marital bedroom. The director’s analysis of the personal insecurities that arise as a result of tension in this most private of environments feels so accurate and is so alluringly presented on-screen that I’m baffled by those that fail to appreciate the success of his vision?! He consistently toyed with and defied my expectations both in terms of genre (erotic drama? thriller?) as well as through the use of his actors. Regarding this latter point, I found Kubrick’s utilisation of Cruise’s irritating persona particularly notable. Rather than mould Cruise’s limited talents into some repellent hero-type character, Kubrick instead chooses to playfully eek out the ‘flaws’ in the actor’s star image. He repeatedly undermines the heroism one associates with the star by focusing on his character’s failures: in his marriage, his professional life and – most cunningly, considering the scrutiny about Cruise’s ‘masculinity’ as well as the connotations of having Kidman as co-star – his sexual life. For his part, Cruise gamely (perhaps blindly?) takes the bait and while he doesn’t deliver anything close to an acting masterclass (Kidman is superior in her limited screen-time), he does provide a great star turn in the Hollywood tradition – the difference with yesteryear being that his is a performance that is deftly and constantly subverted by the director.

One of the primary themes that struck me was that of identity. The character of Bill Harford is egotistical and self-centred (seriously, casting Cruise was fucking genius!), almost wilfully blind to his wife’s needs as best demonstrated by the foreplay-in-the-mirror scene where he shuts his eyes when lost in passion, thereby remaining oblivious to Alice’s emotional distance. This is a marriage that appears mechanised from the opening scene where the couple engage in a possibly-frequent grooming ritual (Alice: “How do I look?”; Bill: “You always look beautiful” whilst not casting her a glance.) What the mirror scene does is to epitomise Bill’s comfort in his lifestyle and Alice’s _dis_comfort in hers – moreover, it’s immediately succeeded by a sequence that further demonstrates their everyday ritual (the concept of rituals is pretty important too, no?) which serves to again underline Alice’s boredom.

Alice’s initial confession scene is thus explicable but nonetheless surprising for providing a dramatic peak so early on. Moreover, it haunts Bill for the rest of the film, acting as the catalyst for all that follows. Alice’s desires (which remain just that) disrupt Bill’s ideal of her as faithful wife and mother, and as a result the facade of his own alpha-male role is revealed to him and the entire construct of his utopian world begins to unravel. A significant portion of Eyes Wide Shut is devoted to Bill’s naive attempts to reconstruct those ideals in order to restore his belief as sexually desirable male. Of course, Kubrick doesn’t make it so simple and one can sense him getting a kick out of Bill/Cruise repeatedly failing to fulfil his desires. Kubrick even subverts Bill’s role as successful doctor – we never actually see how he saves Mandy from a drug overdose in Ziegler’s apartment, and the rest of our images of Bill-as-professional are restricted to: stereotypes in the aforementioned ‘everyday’ ritual; his failure to save a patient from death; and the repeated abuse of his privileges by wielding his ‘Medical Board’ card. The emphasis then is clearly on artificiality over actuality and the disguises that people use. This is echoed throughout the film by Ziegler (happily-married host/perverse philanderer), Militch (protective father/pimp) and the cross-dressing Japanese businessmen as well as Bill himself and his marriage to Alice (and perhaps even Cruise and his marriage to Kidman?) One could even argue that the film’s recreation of New York-in-England plays into this whole concept. All these ideas reach a climax during the masked orgy sequence, Buñuelian in its exposition of bourgeois affairs and Lynchian in its dreamlike bizarreness. Most importantly, it’s Kubrickian in highlighting man’s destructive impulses – this time through the relegation of love/sex (note the bleakly ironic password of “fidelio”) to trivial ‘fucking’, our basest method of communication. The relationship of this scene to Alice’s final words is paramount.

Anyway, I wanted to say much more about this film: the surprising feminist streak in this film and how Alice and the other females dominate over Bill; the link between dreams and reality; the way the spectre of death lingers over proceedings (did Kubrick know? It’s almost comparable to Altman’s APHC); not to mention the (delightfully) unsatisfying pool table scene which resolves everything by saying nothing – I still can’t get my head around it. And the finale in the toy store… how magnificently conceived! The ultimate symbol of the material, convenient but childish marriage that the pair have. But I frankly cannot be arsed to type any more, so over to you guys please…

Eyes Wide Shut

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