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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Eyes Wide Shut (review)

Frisky Business?

A film about sexual obsession. That’s how writer/director Stanley Kubrick described his last film during its ridiculously long production. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, Eyes Wide Shut is not that movie. Instead, it’s a tedious, preposterous story about how men use, misuse, and misunderstand female sexuality. And it’s not even the least bit sexy.

Bill and Alice Harford (Tom Cruise, from Jerry Maguire, and Nicole Kidman, from Practical Magic), a well-to-do Manhattan couple, attend a ritzy Christmas party at which both indulge in flirtations with others. Discussing their dalliances later, he assures her that he trusts her implicitly not to cheat, that he knows that women want different things from sex than men do: security and commitment and so on. This incenses her, and she shares with him a fantasy she had about a stranger who glanced at her in passing, for whom she’d have abandoned her husband thanks to the same, supposedly male, primal lusts that Bill refuses to ascribe to women. “You’re the mother of my child,” he exclaims to her, as if this somehow renders her asexual.
Bill is so stunned to discover that his wife is a sexual being in her own right, that her sexuality does not exist solely in relationship to him, that he… well, he doesn’t actually do anything. Instead, he wanders around in a daze for the longest two and a half hours I have ever experienced. Bill doesn’t act — he is acted upon, and neither Cruise nor Kubrick give us any clue what Bill is searching for in his wanderings. He allows himself to be picked up by a prostitute; improbable coincidence leads him to an unlikely orgy that’s a cross between The Story of O and an old Bela Lugosi horror film; through it all, Cruise, surprisingly docile, never even makes us wonder whether his Bill is contemplating doing anything other than watch.

As if in defiant denial of Alice’s declaration of sexual independence, the women in Eyes Wide Shut are strictly around for the pleasure and convenience of men: a couple of hookers, a teenage girl (Leelee Sobieski, from Deep Impact) inexplicably being pimped by her father, and all the Barbie-esque women on display at the aforementioned orgy. (As punishment for her character’s boldness, Kidman is pushed into the background early in the film; another woman who is audacious enough to be sexually forward, who thinks of herself first, Kubrick treats as an object of pity and ridicule.) Eyes is not the mature exploration of adult sexuality the hype would lead one to believe. It’s Hugh Hefner with artistic pretensions.

For all the naked bodies, though — make that: naked female bodies (God forbid a male actor should be required to bare all) — there’s nothing the least bit erotic about any of it. Indeed, there’s a cold, clinical, almost antiseptic feel to Eyes, which is hardly surprising: One of the themes the film touches on over and over is that sex is, at best, merely a mechanical act that neither leads to nor expresses intimacy, and at worst actually separates us and makes us more alone. Kubrick isn’t just divorcing sex from love — he’s divorcing sex from lust. Eyes Wide Shut is utterly without passion of any kind.

It’s not just Kubrick’s attitudes about women that are about a quarter century out of date. Everything about Eyes — from the obvious rear-projection sequences to the grainy, overexposed filmstock to the stale, Kubrick-approved advertising poster — is tiresome and dated. The script is so poorly written that I have to wonder whether Kubrick actually spoke to more than a handful of people all those years in seclusion: When the dialogue isn’t ludicrous, scenes wheel round in circles going nowhere, like improv sessions the actors couldn’t find their way out of.

By turns baroque and just plain bizarre, Eyes Wide Shut is a colossal disappointment. I’ve never been a huge fan of Kubrick’s, but his previous films were at least thought-provoking. Trying to wrap my brain around this one is giving me a headache.

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