Eyes Wide Shut," the last movie completed by Stanley Kubrick before his death last spring, is as difficult to pigeonhole as any movie of his career.
In some respects, it's a Hollywood marketer's dream, with sleek performances by two superstars and a sexually explicit plot about a married man facing bizarre temptations.
In other respects, it's a Kubrick film to its bones, using its seemingly lurid subject to spark a serious exploration of the human capacities for self-indulgence and self-delusion. It has raunchy moments, but in the end it sounds a cautionary note about unchecked sensuality, even hinting that the allurements of movies like this - promising the same sorts of forbidden thrills the hero encounters during his strange journey - contain implicit moral hazards we should all be alert to.
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman play Bill and Alice Harford, a couple with a beautiful home, a seven-year-old daughter, and a sophisticated Manhattan lifestyle. They're generally content with their achievements, but they're also nagged by the idea that their marriage carries a price tag, since it shuts the door to other close relationships they might desire, including sexual ones.
This restlessness reaches a crisis when Alice confesses a sexual fantasy she's had. Bill is called away from home before he's had time to assimilate this revelation, and finds himself wandering the streets with fantasies of his own. At once prodded by his imagination and restrained by his conscience, he falls into a series of events that lead him to a mysterious mansion full of illicit and perhaps deadly activities. He knows he doesn't belong here - and so do the proprietors of this weird place, who are outraged that a stranger has penetrated their hidden world.
Kubrick clearly intended "Eyes Wide Shut" to be as sexually bold as he could get away with, making one scene (an orgy in the mansion) so graphic that the film's distributor has added computer-generated "characters" to mask some of the action and ensure an R rating.
Yet it's equally clear that Kubrick was not engaging in mere titillation. The film's ultimate message, spelled out plainly in the final scene, is one many viewers will find responsible: that we must remain awake to the darker urges of human nature, and to the social influences that prey on those urges, relying on love and commitment to shield us from temptations that otherwise might wreck our lives.
"Eyes Wide Shut" may reach a large audience in the short run, thanks to its glamorous stars - both of whom give their most deeply felt performances to date - and exotic content. Its long-term popularity will probably be limited by its wordy screenplay and slow-moving story, designed less to build dramatic excitement than to enhance the effectiveness of Kubrick's ingenious visual concepts.
Even on the level of cinematic brilliance, however, the movie doesn't meet Kubrick's loftiest standard. While the immaculate framing, expressive camera movement, and neon-tinged lighting are close to visual perfection, these elements are hampered by the thinly fashioned narrative they have to serve. Zeroing in on crafty temptations that assault human nature from within and without, "Eyes Wide Shut" aims for the self-critical irony of "A Clockwork Orange" and "Full Metal Jacket," which tackled somewhat similar themes in very different ways. This is a subject Kubrick never quite conquered in those earlier films, however, and it eludes him again here. The greatest part of his legacy lies in other, richer works.
*Rated R; contains explicit sex, nudity, and drug use.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society