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Nashville Scene Dr. Strangelove

Director Kubrick leaves behind a gorgeous, human, fascinatingly flawed film

By Jim Ridley

JULY 26, 1999:  There are great directors we can imagine dabbling successfully in hardcore porn. Hitchcock? Maybe, although the sickening mix of sadism, nudity, and voyeurism in Frenzy doesn't exactly portend raincoat weather. Bunuel? We can only guess how he might've needled his audience's squeamishness about privacy and body functions, as in The Phantom of Liberty's classic gag about diners excusing themselves from the bathroom to eat. But Stanley Kubrick? Apart from a coy lovers' game in Barry Lyndon, the most erotic scenes he'd shot in the past 35 years were in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove--and as I recall, both involved docking aircraft.

That's not to say his films avoided sex and nudity, although you could be forgiven, after the chilling rapes of A Clockwork Orange and the peekaboo perversions of The Shining, for wishing they had. In these films grotesque sex was another manifestation of unchecked power and inhumanity, two of the director's great fascinations. But their coldness added to the raps Kubrick had taken ever since 2001: that he had become a hermit and a heartless technician--a guy who could manipulate lenses, light, and angles with mathematical precision, while brutalizing his actors with endless takes and his characters with merciless cruelty.

So when word came that Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's first movie in 12 years--and the one that would prove to be his last--was an erotic thriller of much-hyped explicitness, the notion made viewers a lot queasier than, say, the idea of Joel Schumacher doing snuff in 8mm. On that count, we now know that no one should worry--to please the vigilant penis-snippers at the MPAA ratings board, the director digitally altered the movie's roughest scene to avoid an NC-17. (The hope persists that Kubrick, a brilliant marketer of his own movies, conceived the entire flap to score one posthumous PR coup.) The good news is that Eyes Wide Shut is a triumph not of explicitness but of intimacy, a gorgeous, human, and fascinatingly flawed chamber piece in a career filled with symphonic works.

Not that you'd have known it from the unholy unions in films like Lolita and The Killing, but Kubrick has been remembered in recent tributes as a devoted family man and husband. After seeing Eyes Wide Shut, you can believe it: It's the fever dream of a man secure in home and hearth, for whom temptations are far away and vividly imagined. The movie is driven by something as simple as a husband's hitherto untested relationship with his wife--which turns out to be as dangerous, vast, and ultimately unknowable as the universe of 2001.

The movie opens with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as Bill and Alice Harford, an affluent Manhattan doctor and his former-art-gallery-owner wife. They assume evening wear--costumes are important--for a gala at the home of one of Bill's patients, Ziegler (Sydney Pollack); within moments of arrival, they're whisked apart. Downing glasses of champagne, Alice winds up whirling around the dance floor with an insistently seductive Hungarian (Sky Dumont), who taunts her commitment to her husband. Her husband, meanwhile, faces temptation in the next room from two girls who want to show him "the end of the rainbow." By chance, an emergency involving Ziegler draws Bill away, leaving open whether he really planned to pursue the pot of gold.

That's what Alice wants to know. Stoned, she asks Bill that night at home whether he wanted to sleep with the girls. He glibly tells her he didn't because he's married; she takes this to mean he was honoring their contract, not acting out of love--the same reason he thinks she'd never be unfaithful. In a rage, she tells him that during a family vacation, a chance encounter once filled her with a passion that almost made her throw away her daughter, her husband, and her future.

Kidman is astonishing in this long, wounding take, but it's here that the casting of Cruise really pays off. Cruise is a good actor, but at his worst he falls back on a cocky smirk filled with blithe entitlement. At the start of the scene, Bill pastes on this movie-star grin, and it annoys Alice as much as it does us: It sums up years of having her will and sexuality taken for granted as a possession. Like the wife in Joyce's "The Dead," who shatters her husband's illusions with a single confession of long-ago love, Alice undermines Bill's every certainty about his life and his wife in an instant. From then on, every time Cruise flashes his charisma in Bill's service, he gets slapped down.

In a trance of fear and desire--the words that kicked off Kubrick's feature-film career--Bill leaves their apartment and vanishes into a garish nightworld, a journey that leads from a jazz hangout called the Sonata Club to a secret orgy presided over by a hooded red figure. It's a test of his own fidelity and sexuality, and at every turn he gets to find out what it's like to be defined purely in terms of sex: by a grieving client (Marie Richardson), by street punks, even by a smitten bellhop (a wonderful cameo by Alan Cumming). In the course of the movie, he will attempt to wear a costume, to dabble in depravity and voyeurism, and his mask will always be his undoing.

Eyes Wide Shut evokes a dream state so fully that it leaves you feeling drugged and woozy: It's fascinating to note in retrospect how few steps Kubrick uses to lure us from mundane domesticity into perversity. Kubrick does this by inverting the privacy of the dream world, the landscape of fantasy and fear that manifests itself in your sleep. That world is the one Bill Harford walks through: It abides by the same leaps in logic and location. One sequence alone, in which Bill's steps are dogged by a man on an otherwise deserted city block, may be the most perfect representation of dream logic I've ever seen on screen. The elements don't add up in the cold light of day without a load of backstory (who's the guy? what's he doing?), but Kubrick uses Bill's (and our) dread and curiosity as the glue that holds them together.

The movie doesn't proceed so much by plot as by motifs. Kubrick and his cameraman Larry Smith use color in ways that are almost musical. Splashes of lurid red and cold blue recur like the passages of Shostakovich and Ligeti on the soundtrack. Red throughout is the color of temptation; it marks every tantalizing threshold Bill wants to trespass--a hooker's door, the Sonata Club's awning, the plasma-like light inside--as signposts leading toward the climactic orgy. The Harfords' bedroom window is framed by a curtain as red and fleshy as Marilyn Monroe's lips; beyond it, the city at night gleams dark and blue.

The same blue light appears behind Alice when she starts to make her confession. This pale light, which illuminates the stage of the Sonata Club, is like an infection: As Bill faces each dark new truth, the light seeps from room to room until even their daughter's room is flooded--even their bedroom. Yet the red and blue are inextricable: They're in damn near every shot, even linked in the logo for the Rainbow Costumes shop where he picks up his outfit for the orgy. Which echoes the two girls' come-on to Bill at the party: Don't you want to know what's at the end of the rainbow?

He thinks he does, and so do we. Both times I've seen Eyes Wide Shut, the audiences throughout are dead silent: You'll recognize the uncomfortable quiet if you've ever seen an intense sex scene at a movie theater. Violence in film pushes our buttons and allows instant catharsis, but it's easy for viewers to whoop and holler at the release because acts of violence are acknowledged openly. Sex, however, remains such a taboo that most viewers sit stock still, afraid of betraying any show of emotion that might be read by a neighbor. Yet that's the reason everyone has come to see the movie--to see their fantasies projected. Like Bill, we want to experience some vicarious smut.

And so Kubrick sends Bill wandering through the orgy's parade of artfully arranged fornicators, each grinding away in plain view for our--oops! his--enjoyment. According to Full Metal Jacket collaborator Michael Herr in the current Vanity Fair, Kubrick had planned to film Eyes Wide Shut in 1980 as a comedy with Steve Martin. Herr pretty much scratches his head on this point, but it's in this scene that Kubrick's conception comes closest to black comedy, or the comedy of embarrassment and thwarted lust that flowered in his Lolita. Bill has come for titillation; what he gets instead looks like his every worst imagining of his wife's infidelity: positions 1 through 69, staged for an audience of gawkers. (I'm not sure the scene wouldn't have been better played more for laughs--the elaborate sex acts, which look like a cross between Victorian porn and Cirque du Soleil, are pretty silly, and the robed tribunal is downright hysterical, in every sense.) Bill's humiliation is complete when he arrives home to find Alice cackling in her sleep--at the notion she's cuckolding him before hundreds of onlookers.

The movie falters most near the end, when Kubrick and co-scripter Frederic Raphael attempt to impose too literal an explanation for the murky chain of events at the movie's center. There's an endless confrontation between Cruise and Pollack that resembles nothing so much as the psychiatrist's deadly dumping of exposition at the end of Psycho. Its sole redeeming factor is Pollack's dead-on portrayal of a wealthy, worldly Mephistopheles--an amiably corrupt publican who may represent why Kubrick turned his back on New York and L.A. (Harvey Keitel was originally given the role; the casting of Hollywood old-pro Pollack gives it a satirical kick that wouldn't have been there otherwise.) Here, Kubrick's rhythms become narcoleptic instead of somnambulant, and you long for a stray boom mike to disrupt his oppressively stunning compositions.

The closing scene, however, in which Bill and Alice must decide whether to start from ground zero--certain of nothing after nine years of marriage--catches Kubrick in a moment of unambiguous tenderness. How intriguing that a director noted for his coldness, his fascination with technology, and his supposed impersonality should end his career with a shot of a man and a woman in a toy store--surrounded by mechanical gadgets and gizmos, yet unable to focus on anything but each other. It's a farewell gift from a filmmaker who looked at the best and worst man had to offer, and never blinked.


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