Friday, February 13, 2015

Recommended!: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

The last time there was this much back and forth about the release of a big budget sex movie was back in 1999 over Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. The way people were going on about it you'd think that then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman had hired Kubrick to write, shoot, & direct a $35 million sex tape to be distributed cinematically. Which seemed to be what the many people who lined up for it thought they were in for (unrealistic as the expectation was), and there was some serious backlash over what they ultimately got: a murky excoriation of the Tom Cruise character type, with Kidman seemingly relegated to a tiny supporting role, with Cruise thrust into increasingly ridiculous scenes, none of which climax in anything resembling the erotic release promised by the movie's hype. Hype exacerbated by Kubrick's death, leaving both expectations that this be some kind of a final masterpiece [as well as a multi-million dollar sex tape] and questions over whether or not the movie was actually finished.

Like most of Kubrick's movies, after the year that spawned it, with the hype surrounding it cheerfully forgotten, the movie's ready to be re-watched, and reassessed. What remains is this strangely timeless, dreamy wonderland, in which Dr. William Harford (Cruise), thrown into a talespin by his wife (Kidman)'s confession of a powerful adulterous urge, goes out into Manhattan in search of erotic payback. And yet none of his attempted dalliances ever amount to anything, culminating in an absurdly (and, on Kubrick's end, deliberately) overblown masked orgy, at which the trespassing Dr. Harford seems to awaken a dark conspiracy that threatens to follow him into the waking world.

Eyes Wide Shut reveals itself to be an engrossing, dreamy quest,  If it never rises to the level of flesh fest its initial audience was expecting, it's completely honest about the psychology of eroticism; about the profoundly masculine jealousy that rears its ugly head when a woman even fantasizes about sexual autonomy, about the weirdly elusive nature of sexual fantasy (and the damn near impossibility of realization), about the profoundly unmutual sexual aspect that can lurk within even the longest, apparently happiest marriages. It's a tall ask by a supposedly erotic movie to get us to sign on for nearly three hours of Tom Cruise not getting laid, but what we get is a fearlessly honest Cruise performance as he exposes a particularly stunted, thwarted, threatened masculinity. (Cruise went even deeper into self-examination for PT Anderson's Magnolia, an equally remarkable movie also released in 1999.) And though Kidman does wind up being in less than 15 minutes of the movie, the spell of her longing lingers over and through the movie like a ghost. We marvel that a man married to such a woman wouldn't welcome her erotic aspects, yet we wonder if we'd react any more rationally to the revelation of our own partner's depths.

Eyes Wide Shut is as meticulously realized as anything else Kubrick made, and is gorgeously lit by cameraman Larry Smith (who'd go on to work similar wonders for Nicolas Winding Refn). Its dreamlike aspects wind up giving us a deeper, weirder, and better movie than we might have expected (not to mention funnier; Steve Martin had been Kubrick's first choice for the Cruise role). Though the movie does, in some respects turn out to be a long tease, it does give us something resembling release at its coda, as the Harfords seem to be groping toward the realm of mutual sexual understanding...and the equally far-off possibility of a happy ending in a Kubrick film.

If the movie, as some complained, didn't look like it was set in contemporary New York, the distance that time allows lets us look at it in the dreamlike frame of mind intended, yielding hard lessons and dreamy fantasy from its depths. Fifteen years later Eyes Wide Shut seems as elusive, timeless, wonderful, and ultimately transcendent as the erotic impulse itself. I doubt history will be as kind to 50 Shades of Grey.

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