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Friday, July 16, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The `Eyes' Have It -- Kubrick's Final Film A Riveting Exploration Of Temptation, Seduction

Seattle Times Movie Reviewer

Movie review XXXX "Eyes Wide Shut," with Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Todd Field. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, from a script by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, inspired by Arthur Schnitzler's novella, "Traumnovelle" (Dream Story). 152 minutes. Several theaters. "R" - Restricted because of strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug-related material.

At the funeral of Ernst Lubitsch, the great director of "To Be or Not to Be" and "The Shop Around the Corner," Billy Wilder is said to have exclaimed, "No more Lubitsch!"

William Wyler, a fellow mourner and director, put it more pragmatically: "Worse than that. No more Lubitsch movies."

For moviegoers who didn't know Stanley Kubrick, the sudden finale to the Kubrick output is the most immediate result of his death last March. Our connection with him was already tenuous because he made so few movies, some of which were so cryptic and tantalizing that they never lost their fascination. But he did leave one major work behind.

"Eyes Wide Shut," his first film since "Full Metal Jacket" 12 years ago, will have to stand as his final statement. It's as rich and strange and riveting as any journey he's taken us on, yet it's also familiar in a disquieting way. Kubrick's trademark lighting, his unique use of tracking shots, even the changing skin tones of the actors are instantly recognizable. So are the themes he chooses to explore.

"Fear and Desire" was Kubrick's debut feature film, and it could just as easily have served as the title of "Eyes Wide Shut." In the first scenes, he establishes an uneasy status quo between a long-married Manhattan couple, Bill and Alice Harford (played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), only to puncture it with a series of startling temptations and revelations.

She dances with a seductive older stranger, he is pursued by two young models simultaneously, but neither Harford succumbs. They end up in bed together, discussing the evening's possibilities in a marijuana-enhanced haze.

A medical doctor, he thinks the pot is making her aggressive. She wonders how he feels when he examines his female patients, then proceeds to tell him of an event from their past that amounted to a kind of adultery. The admission leaves him visibly shaken, uncertain where their marriage is headed.

After an episode in which a heroin-cocaine overdose interrupts a lavish Christmas party, it seems that every scene could be taking place in a different room of the grotesquely expansive Overlook Hotel from Kubrick's 1980 film of "The Shining." No matter where Bill turns, he finds himself facing distortion, betrayal, violence and sexual hunger.

He leaves his wife to console an out-of-control woman whose father has just died, then finds himself accepting a hooker's invitation, getting pushed around by gay-bashers and visiting an old musician friend (Todd Field) whose latest gig involves playing piano for secret orgies. Bill decides to tag along, but he'll need a costume first, and even that gets terribly complicated.

Much of the picture suggests an erotic fever dream rather than a realistic story. Even the sidewalks of New York and the Christmas lights that twinkle in the background look stylized; so does the orgy, which resembles a satanic rite as staged in a Hammer horror film. But as Bill would have it, and his wife later demonstrates, "no dream is ever just a dream."

Warner Bros. is promoting "Eyes Wide Shut" as a Cruise/Kidman vehicle. Yet as excellent as she is, particularly in the demanding confession scene, Kidman drops out of the picture during Cruise's nocturnal adventures, and the movie falls on his shoulders.

He gives what is surely his most revealing, least mannered performance, perhaps helped along by elements in the script that suggest the real-life Cruise, especially his off-screen habit of rescuing people in distress. Ironically, Bill, whose confidence and bedside manner are deeply shaken during the events of the evening, finds himself faced with the fact that he can't help the people who have helped him.

Some of the publicity surrounding "Eyes Wide Shut" makes it sound like a porn film starring a couple of marquee names, yet the orgy (slightly censored for R-rated American release) is relatively brief and impersonal. Most of the 2 1/2-hour running time is taken up with a marriage that seems to be in trouble, and in particular with a husband who finds himself devastated by his wife's confessions and his own revealed weaknesses.

The only apparent flaw in this spellbinding movie may not be one. Sometimes accused of being deliberately obscure, Kubrick for once appears to explain too much, especially during a long expository scene at film's end. But is the person doing the explaining to be trusted? How could we know?

The orgy pianist lives in Seattle, which plays a small but not necessarily minor role in these final scenes. The answer to the film's central riddle just might be in the Seattle phone book. Perhaps that lengthy explanation is no explanation at all.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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