June 2000

Eyes Wide Shut
Reviewed by Greg Weaver
DVD Format

Overall Enjoyment: ****1/2
Picture Quality: ****1/2
Sound Quality: ****
Packaged Extras: **

Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Theatrical Release: 1999
DVD Release: 2000
Dolby Digital 5.1
Full Screen

This final vision from director Stanley Kubrick is a contemporary story of sexual fantasy and desire fueled by doubt and frustration. Arthur Schnitzler’s "Tramnovelle" inspired the film, with the screenplay co-written by Frederic Raphael and Kubrick. The entire film spans roughly two and a half days around the Christmas season (giving Kubrick even more opportunity to use extravagant lighting techniques) and records the unique happenings in the lives of young socialites Dr. Bill and Alice Harford. The action chronicles both suspenseful and provocative circumstances as the good doctor tries to deal with his own sexual frustrations and fantasies.

As we learn more and more about our seemingly perfect couple, we are apprised of and witness to numerous psychological infidelities and desires – none of which were or are ever fully acted upon. Paced somewhat deliberately, this film ranges from exotic suspense to underplayed satire, with the basic structure of a suspense film pivoting on conspiracy and possibly even homicide. This is the final cinematic offering from the rich and diverse repertory of self-imposed Hollywood outsider Stanley Kubrick, who died March 7, 1999, just days after completing its final editing.

The quality of this film’s resultant transfer is harder to judge than many as it is virtually an ongoing sequence of grainy, low-light, high-contrast shots, one after the other. Like many of his other films, Kubrick’s remarkable use of backlighting, low-key-lighting, and set direction occasionally force the plot from the forefront. The use of vibrant, primary colors as well as other strong lighting techniques used here to fill the cinematic canvas, as well as revealing the unmistakable handiwork of this superlative director, also make this an exceedingly difficult project to capture faithfully. I have never seen normal, every-day, room lighting captured so convincingly and repeatedly on film, even from Kubrick himself. What a true challenge this must have been to the technicians responsible for converting this dynamic film to the polycarbonate disc. Given this tremendously arduous task, the video transfer is exceptional.

I am sorry to say that as good a transfer to optical format as this is, it does not quite do justice to the power offered by the projected image on a wide screen. Unfortunately, much of the original effect is lost in the transfer. The soft, luminous, dreamlike glow of the party scene near the film's opening, the suspenseful heightening of subject matter through the use of grainy effects, the overwhelming affect on the eye with the repeated and bold use of complements red and blue, the strong reliance on low and side key lighting and tracking shots of the macabre ritual at the suburban mansion, unfortunately all lose a little something in the translation to the small screen. All in all though, the disc is extremely capable of conveying the essence of all the powerful imagery and attention to detail.

The stirringly eerie audio counterpoint to the visual aspect of the film's bizarre ritual orgy scene is provided by a haunting, droning piano. The sound is pure and rich, and never becomes harsh or strident. The dialog is clear, punctuated and never over-run by the score. Over all, the soundtrack is quite well done, though the plot doesn’t require or offer any startling audio movement or any other form of remarkable surround effects. However, what it does do is elevate the power of the images which intensify the story line, yet another Kubrickian hallmark.

The performances of both Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are the strongest, most convincing and authoritative of either of their careers to date. I was actually hopeful that more time could have been devoted to Alice’s character, as Kidman’s performance was a surprisingly powerful one. This compelling characterization from Cruise gives strong credence to the statement made of him some years ago, that he might well become the Paul Newman of his generation. This is unequivocally the best dramatic performance from either actor in my opinion.

As with all Kubrickian efforts, the supporting cast is vividly and inextricably woven into the fabric of the final product. Though Harvey Keitel was originally cast for the Ziegler role, he was replaced almost immediately by the Academy-award-winning film director, and ever-increasing cameo player, Sidney Pollack. Likewise, Marie Richardson was recast to play Marion only after all the scenes were entirely shot by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The wily director even populated the walls of many of the rooms in the film with the paintings of his wife, Katharina Hobbs. The film contains a running gag that is sometimes so low key that you might miss it at first. It comes in the form of Dr. Bill presenting his New York Medical license as identification to just about everyone he meets, as though he is terribly insecure about his place in life.

So much has been made of the digital editing of the more graphic sexual scenes during the orgy scene that I will only mention that in my opinion it was wholly needless. The film, even in this censored form, is still not suitable for younger audiences, and should have been either left un-rated, or been given the NC-17 rating. To edit the offending minute or so of footage for the sake of garnering an R rating was pointless and, to my way of thinking, nearly criminal. Regardless, if you want to see those scenes unedited, as Kubrick intended, you will have to wait for another release.

Extras on this release are few, consisting of about 35 minutes of interviews with Cruse, Kidman, and Steven Spielberg sharing their thoughts on Kubrick, two TV spots and the theatrical trailer. Though the box says something about production notes, I didn’t find any. The most disappointing aspect of this release is the limited viewing format. Just before the film commences, there is a full screen notice stating, "This feature is presented in the full aspect ratio of the camera negative, as Stanley Kubrick intended." Yet, regardless of the machine I used or the setting I selected, the disc only plays in the compromising standard television screen 4:3 ratio. This is a travesty, and even more so with Kubrick than many other directors; he crafted every square inch of his frame, the entire width and breadth of his celluloid canvas. The Kubrick Collection release of "Clockwork Orange" shares this same frustrating attribute.

Eyes Wide Shut is a larger-than-life, sweeping, visual tour de force -- even more so than many of Kubrick’s other works. Yet, perhaps more importantly, it was responsible for eliciting the finest performances yet from two of today’s most promising and prominent Hollywood actors, easily setting the bar for what kind of work may come to be expected from them in the future. As such, it is a fitting final legacy from a veteran master filmmaker who never failed to bring the art of film direction to its highest standards. Only a handful of directors throughout the history of cinema have ever been capable of crafting a single motion picture with the skill and artistry of the late Stanley Kubrick, yet Kubrick did it virtually every time he got involved with a project. Even though I am deeply bothered by the fact that this version is only viewable in the maddening 4:3 aspect, I still have to give it a strong recommendation as it is a must-own for all Kubrick fans and for lovers of the art of filmmaking in general. Adieu monsieur Kubrick, and thank you for your vividly diverse and resplendent contributions to the little art form we have come to know as the movie!

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