Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Movies
July 10th, 2004 • 12:27 am

As Sydney Pollack’s character would say, I am probably way out of my league here, but still… How plausible is this whole thing? There’s probably some universal truth in the contrast between the woman’s ability to stick to fantasizing only and the man’s irrepressible need to act on his own fantasies, but is it enough substance to make this movie stand on its legs?

As far as I am concerned, the key thing when it comes to seduction and emotional involvement in movies is likability. In order for us to share the characters’ impulses and attractions (or repulsions), they need to be likable. Yet, like some many other high-brow directors in recent times, Kubrick makes little effort to satisfy this fundamental need in his movie’s audience.

On the contrary, there’s something quite off-putting about this obviously wealthy couple. We’re supposed to accept their situation without question. She’s an unemployed art curator, but there’s nothing particular “artistic” in her. He’s obviously a successful doctor, but there’s nothing in his scenes as a practitioner that suggests why. Even more importantly, they are in love with each other, but we have no idea where the mutual attraction comes from.

I supposed that it’s still possible to make a great movie without providing justification for the characters’ background and existing feelings — but I am not sure it can be done when the movie’s very topic is love and sexual attraction. How do you create tension in the audience when they can’t feel what the actors are supposed to be feeling? How do you create a sense of danger when the audience is indifferent to the eventual fate of the character?

Just because Nicole Kidman (Alice) and Tom Cruise (Bill) are world-renowned actors, it does not make them instantly and automatically likable as characters in a movie. The ability of the audience to identify with them is not a given. It’s something towards which the director is expected to lead the audience, not something that can be assumed.

This obviously makes the movie fundamentally flawed. Unfortunately, apart from a couple of nice shots of Nicole Kidman’s backside, there’s nothing particularly erotic about the movie either. Nothing much happens, and when it does, it’s either within the context of a very cheesy sequence imagined by Bill between Alice and her sailor lover, or during those lengthy orgy scenes where every sex act is systematically hidden from the audience’s view. Since this is effectively a movie about things not happening, this frustration is probably intentional on Kubrick’s part (although this seems to indicate that these scenes were digitally edited for the DVD Region 1 version; it’s not clear to me whether the Region 2 version is any different).

But what it essentially boils down to is that it’s a movie about sexual things not happening to characters that are not particularly likable. Put that way, it’s hard to understand what the purpose (and interest) of the movie actually is. Is this all just a pretext for an audiovisual, aesthetic feast? It’s hard to believe that the director would want to go into all that trouble and then not make use of the fundamental, inalterable beauty of the naked body and the sex act.

The movie is not particularly striking from a purely intellectual point of view either. Most of the dialogue (except for a few lines uttered by Alice) is rather banal. The structure of the plot is not exactly compelling. And by the time Sydney Pollack’s character finally utters what’s supposed to be the ultimate truth (that the whole orgy thing was staged and that the ensuing death of the woman who sacrifices herself for Bill in the orgy was a coincidence), you’re no longer particularly interested in figuring out whether it is the actual truth or a lie.

In short, this is a movie that leaves the spectator emotionally uninvolved, and does not do enough to compensate for it aesthetically and intellectually.

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