By 1996, Stanley Kubrick had been called many things throughout his legendary forty-plus career in film, but "sexy" wasn't one of them. So when it was announced that he would adapt the erotic novella "Traumnovelle" by Arthur Schnitzler for his next film project (and that it would star Hollywood's then-hottest couple, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), more than a few eyebrows were raised. How would the sensibilities of Kubrick, cinema's most notorious control freak, mesh with the dream-like, naturalistic tone of Schnitzler's novella, the pages of which which oozed with sexual impulse and unbridled, erotic passion?
If the subsequent critical and commercial reaction to 'Eyes Wide Shut' is anything to go by, the answer is not very well. Despite an almost unheard-of level of advance buzz, audiences were cool, and critics surprisingly dismissive of what was supposed to be Kubrick's final masterpiece (the director passed away shortly before its release). In fact, 'Eyes Wide Shut' wasn't just poorly received, it was eviscerated.
Luckily for me, diminished expectations can be a godsend. I didn't see 'Eyes Wide Shut' until it first hit DVD, and by that point I had been bombarded by so many negative reactions that I expected a disaster of epic proportions. Instead, I was rather pleasantly surprised. Is 'Eyes Wide Shut' flawed? Certainly. But it is it a train wreck devoid of any and all merit? Hardly.
Running 159 minutes, 'Eyes Wide Shut' is certainly the most epic piece of erotica ever committed to mainstream celluloid. It may also be the most menacing. Consistent with his approach to other literary adaptations, Kubrick took great liberties with Schnitzler's original story, extracting the simple kernel of the idea and largely dispensing with the particulars. In this case, those particulars include all traces of sexiness, romance and warmth. Instead, Kubrick's convoluted yet intimate narrative transforms the life-affirming sexual odyssey of the book's Dr. William Harford (Cruise) into a descent into a netherworld of jealously, infidelity and betrayal. Never has passion seemed so dangerous.
The opening scenes of 'Eyes Wide Shut' are the best, and are quite tantalizing. William and his wife Alice (Kidman) are nearing their tenth year of marriage, and enjoying a life of privilege on New York's upper west side. They would seem to have it all -- wealth, influence, powerful friends and a beautiful 7 year-old daughter. But as Kubrick will so slyly reveal in the opening subtle passages of the film as the couple goes about their daily bits of business in preparation for a fancy cocktail party, there are cracks in the veneer. By the time the night is through, Alice will admit to once having the mere fleeting thought of infidelity, a casual little admission that is more than enough to send William spiraling into obsession.
Had Kubrick made 'Eyes Wide Shut's opening act the entire film, it might have been brilliant. Instead, he dispenses with the Kidman character for most of the rest of the film, and the long, agonizing slog that follows is a largely unsuccessful, phony treatise on male anxiety. As Cruise roams the late-night New York streets (actually a soundstage in merry old England, and the substitution is distracting), he mingles with all manner of temptations, some amusing (including a run-in with a young prostitute) and some deadly serious. It all culminates in the movie's now-infamous "orgy" scene, where Cruise is invited to a gothic old mansion to experience something out of a big-budget episode of "Red Shoe Diaries."
Depending on your point of view, it is here that Kubrick either dares to push boundaries like never before in a mainstream American film, or goes completely off the rails. It's not that the material is all that graphic (though it is explicit, particularly in its unrated form as presented on this HD DVD), it is that it so over-the-top theatrical that it teeters precariously on the edge of camp. By the time Cruise is wandering around the silent corridors of the mansion, wearing what looks like a clown mask, it's hard not to stifle a few giggles. If Kubrick meant for this material to titillate, it fails miserably.
Thankfully, when Kidman returns on the scene, the film regains its footing. Kubrick finally brings the themes he so carefully set up in the first act to fruition, as the questions Alice dares to ask of William will strike at the very core of our Western notions of marriage. To the credit of Kubrick (a lifelong, dedicated monogamist) he may have failed at depicting erotic passion with any degree of authenticity, but he certainly would seem to have walked in the shoes of his fictional Dr. William Harford. It is in these concluding scenes that the true value of 'Eyes Wide Shut' lies; whatever its missteps, at least it is brave enough to ask truly provocative, complex questions.
Having said all that, most will probably never warm to 'Eyes Wide Shut.' As is so often the case with Kubrick, the director seems so hell-bent on not catering to expectations that his film lacks any and all mainstream appeal. Of course, this is what earned the director the label of iconoclastic auteur -- in an industry that's often obsessed with the bottom line, Kubrick refused to shape his film to be mere "products." Although 'Eyes Wide Shut' may not succeed anywhere near the level of the director's most revered classics, like all of his work, its vision is uncompromising.
(Note: The back packaging of both the HD DVD and Blu-ray versions of 'Eyes Wide Shut' appears to contain one major gaffe. The box claims that the film's R-rated and Unrated versions are both included on the disc, each selectable before the film begins. However, so far as I've been able to determine, there's no such option anywhere on the disc. Instead, this release seems to contain only the Unrated version of the film. Given the outcry that greeted the censored R-rated version upon the film's theatrical release in the US, here's guessing few will complain about its apparent absence here.)
Of the five films that Warner is issuing on high-def as part of its Kubrick collection (which also includes '2001: A Space Odyssey,' 'A Clockwork Orange,' 'Full Metal Jacket' and 'The Shining'), 'Eyes Wide Shut' may be the most recent, but ironically it's also probably the one that benefits the least from the upgrade to high-def. A bit of the odd-man-out visually among Kubrick's other works, 'Eyes Wide Shut' is bold in its use of obvious fake sets, oversaturated colors and high-key, diffused lighting, creating an effect that is highly theatrical, and one that just doesn't translate all that well to video.
Presented for the first time in 1.78:1 widescreen in the US, this 1080p/VC-1 encode (identical on both the HD DVD and Blu-ray) looks only marginally better than standard-def. Black levels fluctuate, ranging from wonderfully deep and dark to sometimes washed-out, which flattens the image considerably. Colors are intense, often blurring out and suffering from excessive noise. Given the fact that almost the entire movie looks like it was lit through giant sheets of gauze, it's easy to forget that 'Eyes Wide Shut' was shot in 1999, and not 1979. The image is never sharp and rarely packs any sense of depth. At least there are no obvious compression artifacts, though with the consistently heavy level of grain and noise, that's not a huge plus.
To be fair, given the film's stylistic intentions, this is far from a bad transfer of 'Eyes Wide Shut.' But compared to the more revelatory remasters in the Kubrick collection, particularly 'The Shining' and the absolutely stunning '2001,' the picture quality on 'Eyes Wide Shut' is likely to disappoint.
Warner has granted each of the films in its new Kubrock collection with high-res audio, and this HD DVD edition of 'Eyes Wide Shut' is no exception, sporting a new Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround mix at 48kHz/24-bit (the Blu-ray features a comparable PCM 5.1 track). Unfortunately, the film's sound design is so bland that if it didn't say PCM on the back of the box, I never would have believed it.
The late Kubrick was famous for his disinterest in surround presentations of his films, and as such, 'Eyes Wide Shut' may as well be mono. I counted nary a single discrete effect through the whole film, and only a meager amount of atmosphere and score bleed. There is no sense of envelopment at all, which is a particular shame because a bit of sonic excitement could have added whole new layer of effectiveness to what's essentially erotic thriller.
The quality of the recording is better, but also far from noteworthy. There's little real sense of dynamics to the mix, with the subwoofer often left with little to do, and a thin, reedy sound to the upper ranges. Even Kubrick's use of classical compositions and a few modern songs (most notably Chris Isaak's "Baby's Done a Bad, Bad Thing") are rendered with little life. Dialogue is generally intelligible, but it's somewhat recessed in the mix, which I found required a bit of volume adjustment. At least there are no source problems, such as hiss or distortion.
As 'Eyes Wide Shut' was Stanley Kubrick's last film, it's not entirely surprising that the film is rarely discussed on its own terms, but instead as an epitaph to Kubrick's larger, more highly-regarded body of work.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 42-minute, three-part documentary "The Last Movie: Stanley Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut." Originally produced for the UK's Channel Four, the title is a bit of a misnomer, as it spends much more time giving us an overview of Kubrick's body of work and dissecting his "lost" 'A.I.' project (eventually filmed by Steven Spielberg) than it does looking at 'Eyes Wide Shut.' Although that may be a bit disappointing for fans hoping to get a truly in-depth examination of Kubrick's last movie, it doesn't make this doc any less fascinating.
What's groundbreaking about "The Last Movie" is that, for the first time, the Kubrick estate allowed cameras into their private sanctuary. The entire remaining Kubrick clan is interviewed, and we also get a glimpse at his private working space, including the famed cutting room where he edited the majority of his later pictures. Warner has clearly shared a good deal of the raw interview material across each of the supplemental packages on their new Kubrick re-issues, because the same impressive line-up of participants again appear in "The Last Movie," among them directors Spielberg, Sydney Pollack and John Boorman, Warner's ex-CEO Terry Semel, and countless other collaborators. Also included are archival interviews with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The only things that hamper "The Last Movie" is a reliance on cutesy graphics and transitions, and somewhat haphazard pacing. Still, this one is a must-watch for any Kubrick fan.
Next up is the 20-minute featurette "Lost Kubrick: The Unfinished Films of Stanley Kubrick," which is narrated by 'Clockwork Orange' star Malcolm McDowell. This is an extension of "The Last Movie" that specifically chronicles a number of films Kubrick had planned or developed at one point, but then later abandoned. Though projects such as a Napoleon biopic and an unnamed, long-in-development film about the Holocaust may already be well-known by Kubrick fans, the details provided by his collaborators here (including all of the same participants seen in the "Last Movie" doc) will likely be fresh. Again, fascinating.
(As I first noted in my earlier review of 'The Shining,' this new content is presented in 16:9 widescreen but encoded at 480p/MPEG-2 video only. While the quality is above average, it's a surprise and a disappointment that fresh material like this wasn't presented in true high-definition.)
The remaining supplements will be familiar to those who owned the previous 'Eyes Wide Shut' DVD release. First up is a trio of 1999 interviews with Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Steven Spielberg, running about 28 minutes total. Though now dated, these are still worth checking out if you've never seen them, particularly for Kidman's comments, which are particularly emotional and poignant. As these were originally shot for 4:3 screens back in the day, the material is presented here in 480i/MPEG-2 video.
Rounding things out is a short D.W. Griffith Award Acceptance Speech that Kubrick gave right before his death, as well as two TV Spots and a Theatrical Trailer for Eyes Wide Shut.' All are presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only.
A flawed but still fascinating film, 'Eyes Wide Shut' generally isn't considered to be among Stanley Kubrick's finer efforts. You might say the same about the film's first-ever HD DVD release. Yes, it at last gives US audiences the chance to see the film in its unrated form, but the transfer is still a bit noisy, oversaturated and washed-out, and the TrueHD track is simply bland. On the bright side, at least a nice selection of fresh extras provide some welcome context. It's not likely that this HD DVD will inspire any sort of widespread reappraisal of 'Eyes Wide Shut,' but it's certainly the best treatment the film's seen on home video yet.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.