Not With a Bang . . .
If previous ages tended blindly to ignore their geniuses, ours is all too ready to crown as genius the nearest trendy hack. One of the very few masters not fully acknowledged even posthumously is the Viennese playwright-fiction writer Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), most of whose many works are poorly, if at all, translated into English.
Hence it may be unsurprising if, for his last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick, along with his co-scenarist, Frederic Raphael, misread the work it was "inspired by," Schnitzler's Traumnovelle (Dream Story, 1926). That the director died four days after completing the film, and before putting in his usual last-minute finishing touches, makes the result even more damaging.
In the novella, Fridolin and Albertine are a young couple with a small daughter: he, a successful physician; she, a somewhat bored housewife; both basically happy. At a ball, he briefly flirts with a pair of masked girls; she dances with a stranger, charmed until a lewd remark shocks her. At home, the spouses are more amorous than ever, but then, out of a slight jealousy, confess that, on a long-ago shared holiday in Denmark, she was attracted to a young officer at the next table, he to a glimpsed 15-year-old girl bathing naked on a deserted beach. Each of them felt briefly but intensely tempted.
A midnight call summons Fridolin to the bedside of a patient, who is dead by the time he gets there. The dead man's daughter, Marianne, though engaged to another, suddenly confesses an overwhelming passion for Fridolin: Politely but hastily, he escapes. Not ready to go home, he follows a very young, rather touching prostitute to her digs, but the encounter ends platonically.
At a seedy caf&eaacute;, he runs into Nachtigall, formerly a fellow medical student but now a somewhat shabby pianist. It emerges that tonight he will again play piano for a group of orgiasts who meet in different houses. Transported by a taciturn coachman, he will, as usual, play blindfolded, though he has noticed masked men dancing with comely nude women, then having sex with them. Fridolin extracts the password from his friend, then, under bizarre circumstances I can't go into here, acquires a monk's costume and follows Nachtigall to the orgy in an inconspicuous house on a small suburban street.
Strange things happen. He is recognized as an interloper, and would come to harm, were it not for a nude but masked girl who had previously urged him to bolt; she declares her readiness to take his unspecified punishment upon herself. He is packed off to near his home. The next morning, Albertine tells him her dream, wherein she made love to that young Danish officer while looking on unconcerned as strange men whipped and crucified Fridolin.
He, even more strongly piqued, seeks vengeance in the form of a real-life tryst of his own. But Marianne now proves both unattractive and unavailable; the young prostitute, for whom he brings a package of much-needed victuals, is off in the hospital, gravely ill, as her roommate, another prostitute, informs him. Searching for the stranger who sacrificed herself for him, he is told at Nachtigall's hotel that the pianist was hustled off at dawn by two men to an unknown destination. With some difficulty, he tracks down the orgy house, only to be handed by a servant at the gate a letter addressed to him by name. He is to stop making further useless inquiries or suffer the dire consequences.
In a newspaper, he reads about a beautiful young countess who took poison and was brought to a hospital by two gruff men. At the hospital, he learns of her death, but a doctor friend lets him look at her nude cadaver at the morgue. Never having seen her unmasked, he can't be sure whether she is his savior, but the body excites him uncommonly. Back home, he is horrified to find his wife asleep next to his last night's mask, which he had failed to return to the costumer.
He confesses his escapade. Forgiving, she tells him they ought to be thankful for emerging unscathed from their adventures, both real and dreamed. Here, when he asks, "Are you sure?," the film mistranslates her answer as, "Just as sure as I am that the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, is not the whole truth." Schnitzler ends the sentence: "and not even that of an entire human life represents its innermost truth." Then comes the movie's crowning vulgarity. Alice, as she is called in the film, tells her husband, Dr. Bill Harford, that there is one more thing they must promptly do. Asked what, she sassily declares, "F***." Blackout, end of film -- and of any sympathy we could muster for Kubrick's swan song.
In the story, Schnitzler has the spouses, early on, talking gravely of "those hidden, barely sensed desires that can call forth dangerous eddies in the clearest and purest soul" and "the secret purlieus for which they had scant longing, but into which the winds of fate might yet, if only in a dream, someday sweep them." Schnitzler's tone is always subtle, poetic, and classically controlled. No explanation of the orgy and its consequences, who the dead woman was, and other, lesser mysteries. But both the real and dreamt adventures bespeak the dangers against which even a happy marriage must be on constant guard.
Kubrick, to do him justice, wanted to stick with the story, even though it was his disastrous idea to move the locale to present-day New York, which in mores and sensibility is not just a century but worlds removed from Schnitzler's Vienna. But, as we can gather from Raphael's book-length memoir of their collaboration, it was the screenwriter who insisted that moviegoers would not tolerate unresolved mystery and needed full explanations. So he invented an unlikely nabob, Victor Ziegler (played drably by Sydney Pollack), who gives the initial, huge Christmas party in his duplex at the Plaza. At that party, Victor, on the upper floor, was having sex with a call girl, Mandy, who overdosed; Bill, summoned upstairs, managed to resuscitate her. Near the film's end, Victor explains to Bill that he, too, was at that orgy where Bill was unmasked and recognized. Mandy was the young woman who "sacrificed" herself for him -- a charade invented by Victor -- and also the one who, having OD'd again, became the corpse at the morgue. Everything fits neatly and prosaically together -- no profound unanswered questions here.
The screenplay's additions are crude and ugly. The pathetic young Vienna streetwalker becomes a ballsy Greenwich Village prostitute, and when Bill returns the next day with an unlikely box containing a cake, he lewdly sticks his hand into her roommate's cleavage, all but having sex with her. At Ziegler's party, Alice dances immodestly with a creepily suave Hungarian, who propositions her in a German accent. Nicole Kidman, a good actress, is made to play this and other scenes like a drunken nymphet. Tom Cruise, with many callow grins, is totally miscast as a doctor, whose midnight house call, by the way, is unimaginable in today's New York.
Kubrick, with characteristic grandiosity, turns the orgy into a Busby Berkeley extravaganza, with scores of participants in a spectacular Long Island mansion, the sort of thing that could not go undiscovered. But at least the film could have profited, had he been alive, from Warner Brothers' not bowdlerizing it clumsily: A girl fully naked in one shot wears a large, computer-generated G-string in the next.
Worse, though, Kubrick seems to have lost his sense of timing. Everything is slow-moving and protracted beyond endurance -- much of it accompanied by three maddeningly repeated one-finger piano notes from the second movement of György Ligeti's Musica Ricercata -- and there are enough deliberate gaps in the often stilted dialogue to supply a half-dozen Pinter and Mamet plays with pauses. Yet, clever showman that he was, Kubrick pulled off the ultimate trick: Nothing succeeds like a director's prompt demise upon completing his film.