originally published in the middlebury campus
I reviewed films for the Middlebury Campus for about a year and a half. While I held the post people asked for my favorite film on a weekly basis. I get the impression that people ask this of all film majors as well, but I also get the impression that the deadly combination of critic and student makes this question come up more often for me than some others. I’ve never had a ready answer for people, to what I self-centeredly see as their disappointment. I vaguely considered reviewing a new movie for my last column; I mean, X-Men: Wolverine did come out that week. But, in the end, I decided that I didn’t want to end my time as The Campus film critic writing about some Hollywood blockbuster; instead I wanted to answer the oft-asked aforementioned question. Well, here is my potentially surprising answer: Stanley Kubrick’s last film, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut is my favorite film.
To try and write about a Kubrick film is to realize the limits of words’ applicability to film. It is possible to describe every frame of every shot in Eyes Wide Shut, but even doing that would not convey the dreamlike majesty of Kubrick’s haunting last work. The plot concerns a married Manhattan doctor (played by Tom Cruise) who, after a marijuana fuelled conversation with his wife (Cruise’s then wife Nicole Kidman), realizes he may not know his wife as well as he thought and the fragility of their bond. This begins Cruise’s odyssey into the New York night where he is confronted with obsession, love, and jealousy. To a pretty significant degree the film’s plot, which is manifested as little more than a series of anxious and paranoid sexual temptations, is less important than its dreamy tone. Kubrick is not interested in an examination of sexual psychology but rather in depicting that inner psychology in images and showing how our most basic instincts manifest themselves in a modern world that tells us these instincts must be suppressed. This emphasis on rendering inner psychology visual provides Kubrick with the opportunity to play with audience expectations and toy with what conventional notions of film storytelling are. Shots are held longer than one would expect. Character’s glances off-screen are bizarre and stilted. The pace is languid and spacey. The dialog is fascinatingly off, almost as if these characters aren’t characters in a film but instead characters in a dream. Tom Cruise, who is an aggressively mediocre actor at the best of times, turns in a performance that, in any other film, would be horrendous but here it fits seamlessly into the otherworldly tenor created by Kubrick’s lighting, camera movements, and shot composition. The New York City, which the Manhattan-bred Kubrick knew well, is like not other New York ever depicted. It’s so obviously false as to be unrecognizable, but that only adds to the film’s majestic surrealism.
One of the earliest schools of film criticism was the French impressionist movement, which coined the phrase photogénie. It was a poorly defined term that attempted to capture, in a single word, the experience of a spectator seeing something depicted on-screen that can only be seen by projecting an image onto a screen. It is, partly, a catch-all term for the singular majesty of seeing an object depicted on film in a different way than one would if they were to encounter that object in real life. For me Eyes Wide Shut is full of moments like that, from the strings of Christmas lights that line the walls in the background of the party scene that opens the film, to the blue light that illuminates the bathroom behind Nicole Kidman during the scene where she reveals her lust for a Naval officer she saw while on vacation, to the vibrant red robe draped over the leader of the aristocratic assembly involved in the film’s infamous orgy sequence, Eyes Wide Shut is brimming with images that are striking in a way that is utterly indescribable.
There is a scene in Eyes Wide Shut that has haunted me ever since I first saw the film ten years ago. It is a very simple scene between Cruise and a hotel clerk played by Alan Cumming. The hotel clerk relays some bit of narrative information to Cruise, but the way that Kubrick shoots and constructs the scene is amazing. His shots are held just long enough to create the proper feeling of unease at the narrative information being relayed, but they are deceptively simplistic in their composition, and the cuts are perfectly timed to draw the audience into the emotional and psychological turmoil of Cruise’s character. This is the obvious work of master craftsman, and one of the greatest film makers that has ever lived.
Eyes Wide Shut might not be Kubrick’s best film, but it is the most fitting epitaph imaginable. The film, which was delivered to Warner Brothers four days before Kubrick’s death, is austere like Barry Lyndon, surreal like The Shining, contemplative like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and like A Clockwork Orange, feels as though it could be made by no other. It received mixed reviews at the time of its release. Some felt alienated by its cold style, whist others yearned for the black humor found in Kubrick’s other work. I, however, find myself transfixed by the frigid austerity of Kubrick’s images and the boldly straight forward nature of the emotional complexity on display. Here Kubrick doesn’t hide behind a façade of grotesqueries or irony. In fact it is here, at the end of his final film, that I think we see the real Kubrick; not a man haunted by a bleak world view, but a realist who finally sees the resilience of love as a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s why Eyes Wide Shut is my favorite film.