You can have a good time watching Eyes Wide Shut. There’s a bit of The Shining in it, more of The Firm, perhaps more of Two for the Road—the Audrey Hepburn-Albert Finney picture written by Eyes screenwriter Frederic Raphael—than anything else. It’s a trashy picture. The action its characters play out seems cut loose from motive or even desire, yet in Nicole Kidman’s performance there are anchors for the miasma drifting around her. Any number of scenes are excruciatingly slow, and some may endure for as long as people care about movies—as camp classics. Here’s this Hungarian lounge lizard who looks like Martin Scorsese on stilts and sounds like Bela Lugosi, trying to seduce a drunk Kidman on the dance floor; he’s just words away from “I never drink… wine.”
The tableau outweighs its opposite, the scene in Gillespie’s diner—a pleasant counter-woman talking to Tom Cruise’s doctor as if he’s a real, ordinary human being, the Del Vetts’ absolutely obscure 1961 doo-wop single “IWant a Boy for Christmas” singing out from somewhere deep in the soundtrack—where for a moment one glimpses a simple decency that throws the tawdriness and glamour of Cruise’s night-town meander into relief, that for a second collapses its artifice.
Cruise’s character isn’t smart enough for Kidman’s; that’s a gulf the film can’t bridge. When the roommate of a prostitute Cruise has almost slept with tells him that the woman has just learned she’s HIV-positive, the doctor’s look is so dim you half expect him to say “What’s that?” instead of registering his narrow escape from ruin and perdition, which he doesn’t do either. But there is no reason for him to. This is not a movie about sexual obsession, and neither Cruise’s doctor nor Kidman’s wife is sexually obsessed. This is a movie about sexual diversion: about the way an image, or a word, can turn you off the familiar street of everyday affairs. Cruise has been hit over the head and he’s walking around blind.
Kidman’s you-think-you-know-me? monologue—her claim, after she and her husband have both been flirting with other people at a party, that she once gazed on another man, that if he’d gazed back at her, “I was ready to give up everything”—takes place on the same plane as Bibi Andersson’s story about sex on the beach in Persona and Al Pacino’s deadly build to “I’ll kill them both” in The Godfather. It’s not arousing, as Andersson’s speech is; unlike Pacino’s, it’s not a reversal of character. Up until this point, Kidman’s wife has had no character. Now she offers a cold, hard, perfect little horror story. She plants it in her husband’s brain like a tracking device; no matter where he goes, who he meets, what he does, he will not escape it.
The movie doesn’t know how to maintain the mystery of Kidman’s story—of far more questionable reality than the was-it-all-a-dream orgy, which is no dream, just a traditional gnostic black mass—except in Cruise’s fantasies of what Kidman fucking another man would look like. That’s where the trash takes over, with McGuffins and explanations and breast implants and Sidney Pollock’s haimish fiend. It’s as if Kidman’s monologue has upended the film as surely as it does her husband. So it remains an anchor without a ship, but it may stay in the viewer long after the movie has been written off.
Salon, July 23, 1999