Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Well, then, here’s a historic moment in the life of this blog: the first review posted here after an actual cinema screening. At some point I may even review an actual new release, too; you’ll notice this isn’t exactly fresh… part of Dendy Newtown’s Monday night Cult Classics series, quite a few of which I’ve thought about going to but not actually done. Eyes Wide Shut, though, was clearly a different matter. And so the cinema experience tonight, marking two rare occurrences:

  1. Me going to the cinema at all. Last film I saw on a big screen was W (the Oliver Stone film) at a preview theatrette in 2009, but the last film I actually paid for at an actual cinema was probably There Will Be Blood the year before that.
  2. Me seeing a film twice at the cinema. Usually if I see a film more than once, the second viewing is on TV or DVD; very rarely do I see it twice on the big screen. And I do believe it is unheard of me to see a film twice at the cinema with a fourteen year interval between viewings… which is something I should probably explain the reasons for.

Now, I saw EWS upon its original theatrical release in 1999. It was an Event Movie, at a time when I still gave a shit about those things, but particularly so for me; I’d just spent rather a long time working on an Honours thesis at UNSW looking at some of Kubrick’s films, work which involved not only watching all the films—yes, even Fear and Desire, though I never saw the early shorts until much more recently—but reading as much of the critical literature as I could find (hello Norm Kagan), actually translating one massive article from French myself, and then writing 15,000 words about Kubrick and the fantastic genre.

So yes, I was a Kubrickian, if that’s a word, which meant I was hyped for his then-forthcoming film. Hung on whatever bits of news I could get about it on the Net back then (which wasn’t much, cos I only got the Internet at home in July 1998 after leaving UNSW, where my Net access was very limited). Loved the opacity of the trailer that gave absolutely nothing about the film away. Even the news of Kubrick’s death just a few days after finishing the final cut (or what they said was the final cut, anyway) seemed… I don’t know, fitting or something. Given his work rate, it was unlikely he’d have lived long enough anyway to make another film. Dying like that after finishing this one seemed like a great way to end his career, if you know what I mean.

And this was a film that had been percolating for decades, too; we know he’d bought the rights to the source material (Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle) in the late 60s as a potential follow-up to 2001, so this was a long-held project for him. EWS was bound to be something like a definitive statement from Kubrick; even if it hadn’t actually been his last film it probably had to feel like some sort of summation. And it was going to be brilliant. Kubrick wasn’t going to let us down—let me down—with his last film. It couldn’t be anything but great.

Could it?

I’ve spent much of the last 14 years, on those occasions when I’ve thought about the film at all, wondering if I actually did like the film as much as I felt I did after finally seeing the thing. I could never entirely shake the feeling that I’d willed myself to like it more than I genuinely did like it; I’d invested quite a lot of time and energy in Kubrick and the thought that I might be disappointed by after all that was one I preferred not to entertain. The likelihood that I had, in fact, been let down by it was something I’d rather not have thought about, yet couldn’t completely ignore. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve suspected that I’d convinced myself that I’d liked the film when I didn’t really like it tha much. Maybe the number of times I’ve had to correct myself after inadvertently (?) typing the title as Eyes Wide Shit (and yes, I’ve still had to watch out for that even tonight writing this review) should’ve told me something. (Is it my fault the keyboard lays out the letters as it does?)

But until tonight I’ve been too… afraid, perhaps, to watch it again to see what I thought of it on a second viewing. Even after all these years, even after I’ve cooled a bit on Kubrick since those heady days of university, perhaps I was afraid of having my suspicions confirmed. So tonight I finally broke the ice.

And I actually thought it wasn’t as bad as I’d dreaded.

Which is not to say that I don’t have major problems with it after all, some of which I didn’t want to admit I may have had even in 1999. Let’s face it, it’s a somewhat odd story, and perhaps the original period setting of Schnitzler’s text (published in 1926, apparently set around the turn of the century) might’ve made a better choice of backdrop; I could believe pre-WW1 European aristocrats indulging in that sort of behaviour (ritualistic “diabolism” and all that) more easily than the cream of contemporary American high society somehow. Something oddly old-fashioned, for want of a better word, about that orgy. And there’s structural issues, and the overall slowness of the thing; Kubrick was rarely a fast filmmaker but this is a bit grinding even for him. I don’t think I realised just how thinly spread the material really is; Schnitzler’s book only weighs in around 130 pages, which is not much for a 160-minute film.

And then there’s Tom and Nicole, who I will confess to finding a somewhat insurmountable problem. It’s hard material to sell and I had trouble really believing either of them. Particularly her for some reason; on the whole I think Cruise actually does the best job he can, more so than the then-Mrs Cruise, although I still felt he wasn’t fully up to the task. Ultimately Eyes Wide Shut struck me as having a major piece of miscasting on its hands in a way I don’t think I felt back in 1999; I was struggling to find chemistry between the two on-screen, and in that scene from the trailer I think I was more interested in the books on the dressing table than in Nicole Kidman’s bare arse on the screen as she looks in the mirror. Judge for yourselves if that says more about the film or about me, of course.

I don’t know, maybe this time I went in expecting to be disappointed. And yet, as I said, I was afraid I’d find it was really terrible after all, but for all the problems I’ve outlined, I actually didn’t think it was, Kubrick does things right, if nothing else, the film is a splendid piece of production design, and it was good to be reminded of how right he was to use Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata in the score; I’d loved that bit of music long before I saw the film and remember being quite amused to hear it when I first saw EWS, but seeing the film again made me realise how well it was chosen to add a bit of a sting at the right moment. Also, I was struck in a way that I wasn’t back then just how much of the film could actually have been played as a comedy; as poker-faced as it is, EWS has a somewhat dark comic potential I never appreciated until now. (There is, obviously, definite black humour in the business with Mr Milich, the costume shop proprietor, a splendid turn by Rade Serbedzija.) Indeed, I’m interested to discover that at one point Kubrick actually did consider making it as a comedy with Steve Martin in the lead, and even before that he’d considered Woody Allen for it… imagine that film.

So yeah. After all that, I think Eyes Wide Shut has settled for me on the lower tier of Kubrick’s oeuvre, and I probably was disappointed by it even back then; at least now I suppose I can admit it. Whether or not it’s the misunderstood masterpiece its defenders will claim it really is, well, I don’t know. Not for me it isn’t, I don’t think. Still, not sorry I finally took the plunge and watched it again; good to have one’s thoughts clarified a bit and to find different things in it… plus it was nice to actually see on a big screen, though now, of course, I do wonder how I’d feel if my second viewing had been on DVD rather than at the cinema… and I really should hunt up the Arthur Schnitzler book now as well…

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One thought on “Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

  1. Lucius Paisley August 20, 2013 at 11:58 pm

    Allow me to summarise the entire movie…

    “Oh no! There’s a big conspiracy!”
    “No, there isn’t.”
    “Oh… okay.”

    There were two good things about that movie – 1) Somebody else paid for me and 2) I got to see the director’s cut of Blade Runner as well, which wasn’t great, but was also paid for.

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