The Dream Quest of Unknown Kubrick

Eyes Wide Shut: adapted by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael from the novel Dream Story (1926) by Arthur Schnitzler; directed by Stanley Kubrick; starring Tom Cruise (Dr. William Harford), Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford), Sydney Pollack (Victor Ziegler), and Todd Field (Nick Nightingale) (1999): Stanley Kubrick’s last film had an infamously long shooting schedule, one which some people view as being the deciding factor in the break-up of stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Kubrick handed in the final cut and then died less than a week later. Yikes!

Some critics at the time seemed to become more confused by the events of a movie based on a Freudian dream-journey of a novella than could really be explained. So I’ll explain it. Kubrick was generally viewed as being a cool, emotionless film-maker constantly striving for some form of cinematic objectivity. He wasn’t, but he was viewed this way by the critical hive-mind. Had the dreamily subterranean sub-conscious David Lynch released the exact same film, reviews would have been much different: we expect a mind-fuck from David Lynch. We expect the inexplicable and the subjective.

In the case of Eyes Wide Shut, the viewer’s detective story could be summed up as a quest to understand what events in the film objectively ‘happen’ and what events are components of the Tom Cruise character’s internal, dream-like, occasionally nightmarish voyage of self-discovery. And the answers to that quest I’ll leave to you, the viewer. If answers are even needed. You could just strap in and feel the G’s.

In many ways, this is Kubrick’s most enjoyably absurd movie since Dr. Strangelove, if you let it be. Cruise’s quest may take him into the bipolar dream realms of Eros and Thanatos, but Kubrick et al. offer mounting absurdities at every turn. An opener of the gateway named Nightingale. A comically sinister Eastern European provider of masquerade costumes and his nymphomaniac daughter. The much-maligned, endlessly loopy Secret Order of Rich Sex Perverts and their comically portentous sex games.

The comic parts curdle to nightmare, of course, with the various threads of Cruise’s journey ending in rejection, illness, humiliation, death, and the contemplation of the abject, naked, dead body of what was earlier a sexualized object . The voyager into the dream world must be shocked back to the land of the real. And with the events set at Christmas, one can note, among other things, the importance of A Christmas Carol to understanding the proceedings. Though Dickens never gave us this much full-frontal nudity.

Kubrick’s choice of then-reigning Hollywood Power Couple Cruise and Kidman makes perfect sense, as he wanted a pair who could play superficially pretty, seemingly bland people who would soon be revealed to contain hidden depths. I think they’re both very good, especially Cruise, who gets to play a character who is both exactly his cinematic type on the surface, and a regret-plagued mess under the surface.

The supporting players are also fine, with the occasional wooden performances tending to be linked to characters who are there as adjuncts to Cruise’s journey and not essential, emotional encounters. I wouldn’t recommend watching it in one sitting. It’s long, and there’s a lot to think about. Highly recommended.

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