A month or two ago I watched what could be considered Kubrick’s last film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), unless the proposed Napoleon TV miniseries ever gets off the ground – so in time for Christmas seemed the perfect time to watch his actual last film. As his only work to represent the 90s, it feels like an outsider within his canon. A.I. only got off the ground with Spielberg, whilst Aryan Papers was shelved because of a perceived similarity to Schindler’s List (1993). Kubrick will always feel most iconic with his works of the 60s-80s – not his 50s or 90s film(s).
I felt an aversion to this film: big name actors have never been a major appeal to me, so Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise‘s names worked against it for me. Why get two big Hollywood actors as the romantic leads? But of course it is more than just a simple romantic or kinky sexual drama.
(Full disclosure: I came into this film having already seen the Nostalgia Critic and Renegade Cut reviews of it)
A.I. was no masterpiece. I loved the first and final acts, bringing together universal themes about family, human identity and mortality, but the middle dragged and the Pinocchio metaphor seemed too heavy handed. Does Eyes Wide Shut represent later Kubrick better than Spielberg’s attempt to?
Unfortunately, I cannot say Eyes Wide Shut is on the same level as Kubrick’s masterpieces. It is not a flawless film, and whilst it explores some interesting ideas, it is not inherently perfect.
There is some great exploration of human sexuality here, with a degree of female empowerment, though the lead of the film remains Cruise as Bill, despite the poster suggesting a dual lead or dominant character for Kidman’s character, Alice. Some scenes, like one of the early bedroom scenes between Bill and Alice, ends up coming across more as a thesis than as cinematic.
Rather than ‘show don’t tell’, Kubrick focuses a lot of time on scenes that don’t need to be here. The iconic sequence of the film, the masquerade sex party, doesn’t enter the narrative until around 1h 20m in (it’s a 2h 40m film). There is a lot of set-up, and we end up following Bill everywhere. We see him going to a cafe. Then he goes to the costume store. Then he goes to the hotel. It works to establish aspects of the narrative, but we follow him walking around the same block for what seems like forever. I’m so used to cinema as a form of temporal manipulation, that it feels very odd for the film to progress over a very constrained amount of time (only 1-2 days), despite its such a long running time. A character will talk about the events of last night, which, as viewers, we only saw an hour ago.
Bill’s role as a doctor feels like a plot device; he goes around waving his license as if it were psychic paper. It doesn’t strengthen the character; it only makes him seem like a creep snooping around places he shouldn’t be. In a scene where Bill rents a costume late at night, the guy who runs the store ends up discovering his underage teenage daughter with two older men, yet lets her off with it. Whilst this works great in exploring the facets of sexuality, it comes completely out of nowhere and somewhat ruins the scene. It’s concluded later on, but it feels too short a mention for what should be more important.
The masquerade ball is meant to be a shocking image, filling the frame with no escape from sexual orgies everywhere. But in a world of instantly accessible online pornography, such images aren’t so shocking or abstract. (Rule 34.) The masks place it within a different form – but even that’s a fetish somewhere. Though a hyperbolic reflection of reality, but the idea of some secret password sex club based around formality, etiquette and stately homes seems slightly plausible.
But there’s a lot to love here. The classical soundtrack is fantastic; the cinematography at the masquerade ball is impeccable, and the film’s dual conclusions are great. First there is the subversive ‘anti-conspiracy’, which reveals the events of the film to be just that, events, without any inherent connection based on a minor link. Which perhaps lies within the same line of thinking that Kubrick faked the moon landing because he directed 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – an idea that still lives, thanks to Dark Side of the Moon (2002) and Room 237 (2012).
The film transports us to a New York City of festivities and Christmas lights everywhere (one of my favourite places and cinematic locations), which is enough to make me happy.
But it still remains essential viewing for the Kubrick, Kidman or Cruise fan.