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A most apt celebration for cinema's fin de siècle was the long-awaited release of the final work by Stanley Kubrick. Eyes Wide

Shut was Kubrick's enigmatic adaptation of Schnitzler's Traumnovelle, which he had dreamed of making for over 30 years. Most of Kubrick's films could be cited as key texts, under an array of headings, including genre, mise en scène and innovation. Eyes Wide Shut is best fêted here as an embodiment of one of cinema's greatest auteur's most coveted qualities: his uniqueness. Legendary for his perfectionism (obvious from every image in his films), he regretted not finding more subjects to tackle, and the gap between each film widened from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) onwards. Some projects eluded him to the end, in particular his desire to film an epic on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, but he exerted an unequalled control over his creations, from conception to casting, publicity and distribution. Kubrick enjoyed unprecedented creative freedom, afforded him by Warner Brothers, who funded his last five films, seeming genuinely proud of their relationship and helping Stanley to realise his vision. For his part, Kubrick made them money, genuinely hoping to reach the widest audience.

Kubrick's choice of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as the stable, beautiful couple whose marriage is pushed to the precipice by a single exchange of dangerous honesty was his casting masterstroke. Going for two of Hollywood's most bankable names was a classic Kubrick move, combining precious commercial appeal with the mischievous challenge of subverting audience expectations of known stars, just as he had done by casting Ryan O'Neal as Barry Lyndon (1975). This time Cruise and Kidman's real-life marriage added an extra element of pure fascination to Kubrick's tale of sexual jealousy, which concerns itself with the frighteningly precarious nature of the most intimate male-female relationship, and the heartbreaking conflict between truth, honesty and deepest love. Tom and Nicole served Kubrick's interest in the confusion between reality and dream perfectly. And the First Couple served up some more quintessential Kubrick for the father figure they admitted to being in awe of: acting performances that seem to go far beyond scripting, strangely mannered yet volatile; truly surprising as they become fully complicit in the destruction of their image, past and imagined. The shattered Cruise persona has a hand in the dramatic impact of Bill Harford's shaken discomfort, which constantly jolts him into silent fear. Alice's exploding burst of hilarity, pursued by bitterness and apprehension during 'that fucking laughing fit', holds complexity of feeling that is quite beyond words and simply has to be seen. The emotionally heightened nature of these performances, breaching limits of naturalism, fit a long-standing Kubrick trademark. His cinema is filled with such arias, duets and ensembles that are the direct result of his quest to capture that 'something' from beyond the plain imperatives of plot and human logic.

Kubrick's mythical 'recluse' image was inevitably stoked by journalists who could not get interviews. Certainly he did not care to explain his work or question others' interpretations, but did equate cinema with another often non-verbal art form - music.

His orchestration of framed action, camera movement and music intensified with every film as a formal ideal. Enthused by the creative possibilities of new technology, he stretched the Steadicam's capabilities in The Shining (1980), creating a profoundly disturbing dichotomy between its free-glide and those locked reverse zooms and fearful symmetry that he chose frequently as a cradle for his characters' precarious struggle for existence. Eyes Wide Shut shows his unique aural-kinetic poetry taken to its greatest heights. The ceremonial preparations for the secret masked orgy that Bill discovers and attends (while smarting from Alice's confession of her adulterous sexual fantasy) is like a breathtaking distillation of so many of Kubrick's qualities and fascinations: stark narrative tension leading us towards Harford's gratification or discovery; mesmerising cinematographic motion; gracefully intricate mise en scene unfolding within a simple revolving structure - a knife-edge fight for our senses between natural loveliness and dark grotesquerie; the impossible beauty of the female form locked in an organised circle; music speaking the cold malevolence of control, but still subject to passages of organic struggle for escape towards an emotional outpouring of lament and humanised yearning; everyone wearing masks - a motif recurring across The Killing (1956), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and others. Kubrick recognised its pliable dramatic power, and its ability to snare those who cannot sense meaning beyond simplistic metaphorical definition.

Predictably, critics were confounded by finding no terms of reference with which to compare Eyes Wide Shut (including Kubrick's earlier work). The critical response was hamstrung by bemoaning the film's failure to live up to (the critics' own) expectations. His films could always be relied upon to do that. Genre, as with The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), could be his narrative seed, but was never a dramaturgical formula: horror film

Eyes Wide Shut

with little darkness and claustrophobia, but where vast space and light offered no respite from supernatural terrors; Vietnam War movie uninterested in epic sweep, plunged instead inside a microcosm of militaristic social control then thrown out with a handful of infantrymen to observe their ensuing baptism by fire of first kill and loss. Escaping genre, Eyes Wide Shut continued Kubrick's shift away from cinema fettered by realism. Providing a staggering wealth of 'authentic' detail in its art decor, the overall effect is unreal, dreamlike; feeling stripped down and primal in both image composition and plot construction - cinema as an out-of-body experience. Its pristine travelling images create a hallucinatory journey, but moments like Kubrick's bold visual cuts on silence and reversing screen direction make it a frequently disturbing one. Classically, Kubrick's rule breaking shapes the film's most quietly disconcerting exchanges between characters in conflict. A paradoxical quality in his visual approach always matched his resistance to neat endings. Dreams and reality, and surviving an experience of their dangerous blurring, are one of the film's most overt themes, but it is impossible to judge that this is somehow more central than the meditations on sexual desire, love, fidelity, abuse, truth and imagination.

It is easy to sense that Kubrick's films might be an uneasy or unsatisfying experience for some viewers - Eyes Wide Shut most of all. Several things may get in the way, including, inevitably, expectations of star vehicle conventions, Hollywood dramatic closure, or preference for clearer delineation of the tragic and comic. In this respect, earlier films such as Paths of Glory (1959) and Dr Strangelove (1963) are more conventional, 'easier' narratives: human tragedy and clear black comedy. Eyes Wide Shut is virtually devoid of comedy at plot level, but is cinematically mischievous, sprinkled with references to Kubrick's previous films, and it ends on a note (word) that can be taken as iconoclastic or touchingly optimistic. There is none of the shock that could make one shy away from moments in The Shining, yet it is marked by an understated sense of profound horror at several points. The scene where Ziegler tells Harford 'the truth' about the orgy and the prostitute reported dead is one - a masterpiece of cinematically shaped psychological drama that explains everything - or nothing ...

Most crucially, Eyes Wide Shut is a film that invites projection of the viewer's emotions into its unique and hyper-real dream/nightmare - an extraordinarily unusual quality in a bigbudget, studio film. Possibly the richest exposition of Kubrick's concern with love, evil and human fragility, Eyes Wide Shut is certainly the ideal embodiment of another of his most personal qualities - an acceptance of mystery.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

• What are the most memorable images/scenes in the film after first viewing? Can you find other scenes that seem just as important in terms of conveying the themes that are part of the story?

• Look at the use of colour in each scene. What do you notice? Are there any patterns here?

• What do you feel is the significance of Bill's visit to Marion, the bereaved woman?

• Can you think of 'gaps' in the plot that other directors would have filled?

• What does this suggest about Kubrick as a film-maker? Or cinema generally?

• What do the individual star personas of Cruise and Kidman (and their combination) bring to Eyes Wide Shut7 (Have the events in Tom and Nicole's personal life since the film affected your reading of the film?)

• Is Alice as important a character as Bill? Why/why not?

• What did you think of Alice's last few lines (and final word), which end Eyes Wide Shut?

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