Old Masters

Old Masters

For contemporary reactions from Nation critics to the films of Stanley Kubrick, follow these links: Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Shining (1980), all reviewed by Robert Hatch, and Full Metal Jacket (1987), reviewed by Terrence Rafferty.


Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut tells a story of three consecutive nights in New York City, and of the exchanges between wife and husband that punctuate them. In the wake of the first two nights, the wife reveals dreams of sexual desire, which humiliate and enrage her husband. After the third night, it’s his turn to confess. Appalled at what he’s discovered on the trail of his own desires, he breaks open at last, at dawn.

These events take place in late December, when nocturnal fantasies of horniness and guilt can be played out in festive surroundings. Even the low-rent den of a prostitute has its Christmas tree, radiating color in the background. Yet there’s more to the film’s glow of make-believe than a few holiday trimmings. New York’s downtown streets have grown slightly wider. The rows of storefronts are strangely tidy; the apartment interiors (except for the prostitute’s) all seem to belong on Park Avenue. Fabricated by Kubrick in England, this is a dream Manhattan, which comes close to the real thing without actually touching it. When Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) walks these streets, visiting a patient’s home or prowling the Village, he is not so much inhabiting a physical place as moving through a set of thoughts–thoughts that take shape in reaction to the unwelcome suggestions of his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman).

Such rigor of structure, wed to such clarity of purpose, was characteristic of the work of Kubrick, about whom I still find it hard to write in the past tense. His sudden death in March converted Eyes Wide Shut into a last testament–a nasty trick for fate to have played on him, since unintended, superabundant meanings were foreign to his art. The degree to which the release version itself might have seemed foreign to Kubrick will remain a subject for debate. Although he completed a cut of the film before he died, reports have circulated that the sound mix had to be finished by other hands. And then there’s the issue of the alterations (defacements, rather) that were made in the US version to secure an R rating, instead of NC-17. I’ll have more to say on that subject. For now, it’s enough to remark that as Kubrick’s Christmas fable comes before us, it is weighed down as heavily as Marley’s ghost.

During the two hours and forty minutes that I spent watching Eyes Wide Shut, I kept longing to unburden the film, to lift the portentousness that had settled on it. And at times the weight seemed to lift on its own. In the scene of Alice’s second revelation, the emotional ground shifts so quickly that gravity loses its grip. (Bill awakens her on the pretense that she was having a nightmare–an odd excuse, since she was laughing in her sleep. Yet, once awake, she agrees with him. The dream was terrible, she says, and then reveals an explanation Bill doesn’t want to hear.) In other scenes, characters such as a scheming merchant (Rade Sherbedgia) and a flirtatious hotel clerk (Alan Cumming) recall the comic grotesques who have animated so many of Kubrick’s films. But these moments prove to be rare. Some of the heaviness of Eyes Wide Shut was imposed on the film; but most of it, like Marley’s chains, turns out to have been self-forged.

Proceeding at a pace that is not so much hypnotic as soporific, Eyes Wide Shut devotes the great majority of its running time to Bill’s fantasies: his vengeful search for erotic adventure and the anxieties that ensue. Bill becomes irresistible to a grief-stricken woman (Marie Richardson), falls in with an improbably wholesome streetwalker (Vinessa Shaw) and then (in the movie’s extended set piece) bluffs his way into a Long Island mansion, where men in masks and hooded capes ritualistically debauch a team of women who recall nothing so much as Vegas showgirls. In brief, Bill has a head full of clichés. Throughout his somnambulistic excursions, he treats them all with leaden solemnity–and so too, unaccountably, does Kubrick.

At one point in his career–thirty years ago, say, when he first thought of making a film version of Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle–Kubrick might have directed the central masquerade to combine a frisson with laughter. Not any longer. “When a promise has been made here, there is no turning back,” declares the master of the revels to Bill, in one of many lines that would have been better suited to a silent-film intertitle. “Go!” And Bill slinks off, with such dimwitted earnestness that he drags back the next day for more.

Who is this dolt? It’s hard to say–and not just because Bill spends so much of the film behind a mask. Even without the disguise, precious little that is credible registers on his face. Those moviegoers who belittle Tom Cruise should think twice before assigning the blame to him. Remember The Color of Money, Born on the Fourth of July, Interview With the Vampire, Jerry Maguire; then ask yourself how that sly overachiever could have turned into the shell you see here, unless he’d been methodically directed toward hollowness.

It’s a hollowness not of technique but of conception. In his later years, Kubrick seems to have forgotten that you can’t have psychology without people (those inconvenient beings who demand to be listened to and watched). And so Bill comes across as a disembodied syndrome: male neglect of female sexuality. Such syndromes do manifest themselves–even on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, even in the nineties. But only in Eyes Wide Shut do they manifest themselves without credible human agency.

To grow rich as a doctor to people who are richer still, a man needs both charm and a sense of command. Through such traits he makes his place in the world, and can lose it at home. But since Eyes Wide Shut never links public life to private, we might conclude that Bill’s blindness to his wife is nothing more than the error of bumptious youth. When circulating at a posh party, Bill hides behind a forced smile–except when he encounters an old medical school buddy, with whom he lapses into the playful arm-punching of a high school jock. Never once did I believe that the wealthy would entrust their lives to this man. Nor was I convinced that Bill (surely a social climber) would drink canned Budweiser; that he would discover a Village jazz club with a tuxedoed headwaiter and a last set ending at midnight; that in present-day New York, he would find a cab driver named Joe who speaks English as a first language. When a film leaves you time to notice such improbabilities, it’s a sign that the fictional world before you is not surreal but sub.

As for the wife whom Bill neglects: So, too, does Kubrick. All we know about Alice is that she once managed an art gallery in SoHo (the walls of her home are covered with pictures no self-respecting SoHo merchant would touch) and that she now spends all her time caring for a school-age daughter. Such taxing unemployment may have been common among upper-middle-class women in Schnitzler’s Vienna, but it would be seen as odd in Kubrick’s setting. This isn’t to say that married women on the Upper West Side are necessarily happier than their old Viennese counterparts. They’re just more interesting than Alice.

I think Eyes Wide Shut is the work of an artist who long ago stopped paying attention to the world around him. If you are someone who cares about film culture, you will want to see it anyway, perhaps more than once. Respect for the rest of Kubrick’s work would demand no less. But here the final chain clanks onto the film.

Because the rating board of the Motion Picture Association of America objected to some images of crotch-to-crotch thrusting in the masquerade sequence–about sixty-five seconds’ worth, according to the stopwatch of Variety‘s Todd McCarthy–Warner Bros. altered those shots to secure an R rating. In what the distributor calls the “international release version” (that is, the film as Kubrick made it), the thrusting will still be visible. But in the “domestic version” (meaning the one deemed suitable for American eyes), Warner Bros. has inserted computer-generated figures into these shots, to block your view of the action.

I suppose I shouldn’t object. Thanks to the MPAA and Warner Bros., the masquerade now has the element of risibility I’d desired. But the least one should do for a Kubrick film–even one of his lesser works–is to see it. In the United States, it is now impossible to achieve that minimum. Maybe, in making this picture, Kubrick should have kept his eyes open wider to the world around him; but there’s no reason for our own eyes to be shuttered.

Here, in vigorous old age, comes another master: Eric Rohmer, age 79, whose Autumn Tale is now brightening the lives of all who watch it.

As attentive to the seasons as the author of Eyes Wide Shut but incapable of his ponderousness, Rohmer ventures for this film into the Rhône valley, at a moment when grapes are being harvested, students are returning to school and the middle-aged are learning to hope that they might love again. Magali (Béatrice Romand), brusque in widowhood, runs a small vineyard the way she manages her hair: The first is half-choked with wild vegetation, the second sprouts untamed about her head, and both can claim to be more flavorful for being left to grow. Gérald (Alain Libolt), shy and tentative in divorce, keeps his own hair slicked down, as a salesman must, but hints at a southern warmth beneath his too-polite manner. You can’t doubt that these people were meant for each other. But it takes a while for them to meet, given the mixed motives of the women who are helping to fix up Magali.

Her friend Isabelle (Marie Rivière) undertakes the project with a certain deviousness, as if searching for a romance of her own. (She’s perfectly content in her marriage, she says, just before taking out a personal ad.) As for Magali’s second helper, she’s another of Eric Rohmer’s beautiful, articulate, iron-willed young women. This one is a college student named Rosine (Alexia Portal); and though her methods are far more straightforward than Isabelle’s, her aims are even more convoluted.

Typical Rohmer, you might say. The scenery is lovely, though it’s interrupted by the cooling towers of a nuclear plant. The people are charming, though they’re willful and conniving. The plot is simple, though it meanders all over the countryside. Unforced, relaxed, self-assured and utterly absorbing, Autumn Tale is the work of a master with nothing left to prove but everything to give.

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