Last things tend to benefit immeasurably from their lastness. Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s String Quartets. Shakespeare’s Later Plays. I’ve always had an instant affinity for later works: Jude, the Tempest, late Schostakovitch… the proximity of Death seems to lend a aura of greatness to cultural production, and illogical as it may be, to cultural reception. Which is why we all want so much to enjoy Stanley Kubrick’s last film — and why it disappoints so profoundly.
Of course, this is unfair. Kubrick hardly intended it to be his last movie and mysterious and perfect as the timing was ( his death the day after the final edit), it’s largely a freak of mortality that leaves us watching Eyes Wide Shut as Kubrick’s Last Film.
The thing about all Kubrick’s films- and despite the magical diversity of their subject matter, one can make such a sweeping statement – is their hermetic unity. Overriding all other considerations, the films are aesthetically consistent. There’s a look, an atmosphere, a tone that seals up the film into a celluloid globus inside which all the characters and plot function. They’re radically different from film to film: no one’s going to mix up ten seconds from the Shining and ten seconds from Full Metal Jacket. But it’s precisely their unmistakably pure texture that makes the film interesting.
Eyes Wide Shut has the makings of that univalent texture — overexposed onscreen lighting: candles, christmas lights, dawnlight through appartment windows — but unlike other ../movies where the texture complements the action, here the hermetic universe remains vacant.
I think perhaps it’s because EWS doesn’t have that genre resonance that other Kubrick films have. Watching 2001 is profound because it is so far from the sci-movie it seems to be. The Shining is luminous art because it’s so tangential from horror ../movies…. What is EWS the bastard daughter of? Sex ../movies, romance ../movies, paranoid ../movies? It seems to spring from the forehead of no film genre… At least that was what I thought.
We’re told the film is “inspired” by Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (indeed it’s almost banally scene-by-scene transcription of it) but the inflation of this slight Viennese novella into 2 and half hours cinema seems aimless. Every tiny incident from the book is translated into modern New York. Fridolin is elbowed off the pavement by students, Cruise is elbowed off the pavement by queer-baiting kids. The whore Fridolin brings cake to has VD, Cruise’s hooker is HIV+. The text of the letter warning off Cruise/Fridolin from his investigations is word-for-word Schnitzlers. But why?
Clearly we’re meant to think about marriage. Kidman and Cruise’s onscreen / offscreen marriage emphasizes this. And certainly Kubrick’s film does show a relationship going from an ideal state through extreme deformation, arriving at the other end supposedly purified but the closing scene between the beautiful Kidman and grimacing Cruise in a toyshop seems forced and awkward, intoning as they do the precise same words, Schnitzler places in the mouth of his late 19th century pair — with the telling exception of Kidman’s “fuck”. (This seems to be the Kubrick & Raphael’s main device for making Adeline/Alice a modern character, making her say “fuck” alot.) But does it say anthing much about relationships – other than jealous husbands use their wive’s dreamed infidelities, to justify real ones?
Half way through, after the tacky but strangely alluring masked orgy scene seemed to be cut off and left hanging in a pleasingly unresolved way, I thought that Kubrick was revelling in the elastic logic and discontinuities of dreamwork. I thought that bravely for an Anglo-American moviemaker, he was going for openess, disclosure, incommensurability …. but no, diverging from Schnitzler’s story in this one instance, Kubrick and Raphael add a scene where one of Cruise’s wealthy clients explain everything, tying up the mysterious girl who “sacrifices” herself for the cruise character, with a junkie hooker who he’s saved earlier in the film. Thus an element of “plot” is inserted quite gratuitously and with depressingly deadening effect.
Three quarters of the way through I suddenly wondered if Kubrick was parodying a genre after all. The French movie. The hypnotic slowness with which all the actors spoke their lines reminded me of a few Röhmer films and then the attenuated, relationship-centred universe of the film seemed distinctly gallic. The only problem being – the French had done it far better and with far more leger-de-main.
By the end I was just numbed by the glacial pace and atmosphere of it all. Some films are meant to affect in afterglow. You take them home with you and their images loom and clot in your mind throughout the following days. I was hoping EWS would be like this. But I’m more convinced that the opposite will occur, the flurry of puzzled praise that such a long-awaited project like this is bound to occasion will sour with time in to the universal opinion that Kubrick’s last film was nearly his worst.