Eyes Wide Shut (The Cornfield #53)

We begin the year with a holiday picture, and a review from Film.com in 1999; this was written, as I say below, very quickly after seeing the film, and time has only enhanced my strong feeling for the movie. Having posted a number of things for the absurd idea of “the Cornfield,” I may step back a bit from that Sunday habit, although the Crop Duster diary and links will continue full force. In the spirit of this movie, have a dreamy New Year.

Cruise, the news, and framed picture (from the Overlook Hotel collection?)

You think being a film critic is easy, right? Try sitting down to write a review of the new Stanley Kubrick picture two hours after you’ve seen it, without a chance to mull, consider, or generally roam around inside the movie for a while. (Deadlines are tight, and I am guessing that Warner Bros. screened the film late for critics because the possibility of leaks, especially in this age of insta-reviewing, was too great.) Not just any Kubrick movie, either, but the last Kubrick movie we’ll ever see, unless he created some secret opus in the maddening twelve years that passed between the release of Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut.

How is it? It’s Kubrick, for sure, and in often mesmerizing form. Eyes Wide Shut was widely rumored to be about sex, but this turns out to be wrong. There is much nudity, and a small amount of rutting (supposedly hotsy stuff between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman is very brief, and nothing that hasn’t been shown in the trailers). No, this film is about dreams and imaginings, and the way a fantasy might be as thrilling and as dangerous as reality. This film, based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, is a dream-movie.

The opening of the film follows a very successful Manhattan couple, Bill and Alice Harford (Mr. and Mrs. Cruise), to a lavish party at the mansion of a high-rolling friend, Victor (Sydney Pollack). Bill flirts with two Gen-X tootsies as Alice enjoys a bizarre interlude with a dashing Hungarian (Sky Dumont — where on earth does Kubrick find these people?). Bill, a doctor, is called upstairs when Victor’s companion-for-hire (Julienne Davis) overdoses. The next night, the Harfords’ mutual teasing about their flirtations leads to Alice’s ferocious soliloquy about her erotic fantasy — never consummated — involving a man they met the summer before. This is enough to send Bill on a strange journey into a sexual underworld, both simple (an unexpected kiss from an acquaintance) and outlandish (a secret society of lethal swingers). It all happens the same night as Alice’s confession, after which nothing is the same for the Harfords. Cruise, who delivers an intensely committed performance, carries most of the narrative load in the film, yet Kidman’s two major scenes, her fantasy and an especially unsettling dream, are given a prominence by Kubrick that underscores their importance in the design.

And what a design Eyes Wide Shut has. It looks and moves like no other movie, except Kubrick’s previous films; thus a tony New York mansion uncannily resembles The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel. Some of the glacially paced conversations are puzzling even by Kubrick’s measured standards, but this film demands that you re-program your expectations of how a 1999 film hurtles along, and I found it very rewarding to be treated in a non-Armageddon way.

For the most part, the actors have that glazed quality that Kubrick evidently desired, which in many cases leads to a kind of mysterious neutrality: Todd Field as Bill’s med school friend, Marie Richardson as an ardent fan of Bill, Alan Cumming as a swishy desk clerk, Rade Sherbedgia as a corrupt owner of a costume store, and Leelee Sobieski as his jailbait daughter, who may be employed by her father in a particularly depraved way. Kubrick’s style with actors is sometimes derided as inhuman, but his methods capture a precise sense of the anxious, the banal, the fatuous. Cruise’s performance in the early reels is a superb look at bourgeois self-satisfaction, unction at its extreme; Harford’s civilized adieu to the poor nude junkie who has almost died at the party — “Goodnight, Mandy” — is supremely clueless.

The orgy sequence is sure to raise questions of just how out of touch Kubrick was toward the end of his life; some of it undeniably looks like decades-old Fellini, or Edgar Allan Poe’s rendition of the Playboy Club. Yet this is a film about fantasy, daydreams of danger; it’s easy to see this as a vision conjured up by a man who lived inside his own head for decades, a man ruled by anxieties and social awkwardness, who might wonder what it would be like to walk on the wild side, drop through the rabbit hole for one dangerous night. Repeatedly, we watch Bill Harford’s face as he strolls along a Greenwich Village street (by way of Kubrick’s London soundstage) or rides in a cab; is he enraged by thoughts of his wife’s erotic fantasies, or aroused by them? Or merely looking forward to the next liberating exploit? In any case, when was the last time a movie came to life by showing us the adventure of a man thinking?

1999 Ten Best Movies

Blue Christmas, in Eyes Wide Shut

Looking at the movies of 1999 and searching for some kind of end-of-the-millenium sort of theme, a summing-up that would round off the fabulous century…I got no such thing. However. You could do worse than to finish off a millenium with Stanley Kubrick’s final film, which has many and various dreamy observations on the subject of looking, the land mines of the imagination, the expectations of storytelling, and a certain unresolved undercurrent that could be described as the hilarity of anxiety.

Eyes Wide Shut even has a near-century’s reach; Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, the basis for the movie, was published in 1926, before the world did a lot of bad, bad things. This led to a certain amount of chortling among critics who felt the movie’s ideas on sexual jealousy were out of date (and hey, New York City doesn’t really look like that, therefore this film sucks), which is the kind of criticism that shows how out of touch the critic is, not the other way around.

Cruise/Kidman tripped up some people too; we’re not supposed to applaud those people, right? But they are very good at what they are, here. To quote from a review I wrote two hours after seeing the movie, Kubrick’s style with actors is sometimes derided as inhuman, but his methods capture a precise sense of the anxious, the banal, the fatuous. Cruise’s performance in the early reels is a superb look at bourgeois self-satisfaction, unction at its extreme; his civilized adieu to the poor nude junkie who has almost died at the party – “Goodnight, Mandy” – is supremely clueless.

Eyes Wide Shut is an enchantment. It draws you in and slows you down, and something about it remains mystifying. As for the year’s other films, I find as much to admire in some of the smaller, stranger works than in the big guns. So with some difficulty, the best movies of 1999:

1. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)

2. Ride with the Devil (Ang Lee)

3. Rosetta (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

4. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze)

5. The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (Djibril Diop Mambéty)

6. Three Kings (David O. Russell)

7. The Straight Story (David Lynch)

8. Election (Alexander Payne)

9. The Insider (Michael Mann)

10. Kadosh (Amos Gitai)

Mambéty’s film is under feature length, but terrific in every way (it was his last film, too). Someday I will see The Sixth Sense again to find out if it deserves more from me, but I actually like some of Shyamalan’s later stuff better (including Lady in the Water). I like Kevin Smith’s Dogma, Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, and most of David Fincher’s Fight Club, but somehow they have slipped where other movies have maintained, so there you go. Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us is representative of this filmmaker’s Nineties work, but somehow a retreat, too.

But you could make an alternative group of interesting items that somehow aren’t Ten-worthy but deserve attention. (All right, you could do that every year, but this collection strikes me as especially inventive.) Where do you put Ravenous (Antonia Bird), Dick (Andrew Fleming), The Minus Man (Hampton Fancher), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch), The Limey (Steven Soderbergh), Pola X (Leos Carax), Holy Smoke (Jane Campion), Ratcatcher (Lynn Ramsay), Wonderland (Michael Winterbottom), and Guinevere (Audrey Wells)? In their own cool paragraph, that’s where.

Yeah, The Matrix (Larry and Andrew Wachowski) came out too. That was sort of fun. And I like Paul Thomas Anderson’s films quite a bit, but Magnolia struck me as the kind of over-reaching a talented young director probably ought to do, even if it fails as seriously as I think that film does. No complaints about Toy Story 2 or South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, two different cartoon versions of America.

There’s more, but this is long enough. Final one: I am currently re-thinking John Sayles’s Limbo, a very peculiar film that, if it had subtitles and a lower budget (though I’m sure its budget was lower than it looks), would likely have been hailed as a radical examination of narrative, instead of just another talky Sayles picture.