EYES WIDE SHUT - HD DVD review

...a visually stunning achievement, a meticulously photographed exercise in mood and imagery.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

The films of Stanley Kubrick have never been easy. Not to define, not to categorize, not to understand. So it goes with "Eyes Wide Shut," the filmmaker's last motion picture before his death in 1999. Steven Spielberg said that Kubrick never made the same movie twice, that he always tried for something different. Some were masterpieces, like the black comedy "Dr. Strangelove," the sociopolitical satire "A Clockwork Orange," the antiwar drama "Paths of Glory," and the lyrical outer-space saga "2001." Others were near greats: the gorgeously photographed "Barry Lyndon," the wickedly bizarre "Lolita," the epic "Spartacus." Even Kubrick's flawed films, like "The Shining" or "Full Metal Jacket," transcended the work of his contemporaries. It's fitting, then, that Kubrick go out in style, with an uneasy film like "Eyes Wide Shut," one that had critics divided and audiences baffled.

Now, we have "Eyes Wide Shut" in high definition picture and sound, which might just help to divide critics even further since neither the picture nor the sound is exactly the epitome of "high def." But with a slew of extras, at least audiences will get a better idea of what Kubrick was up to in the movie.

Inspired by Arthur Schnitzer's psychosexual "Traumnovelle" ("Dream Story"), "Eyes Wide Shut" was co-scripted, produced, and directed by Kubrick. It is a Freudian look at the lives of a seemingly happy married couple, Dr. William Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman), attractive New Yorkers with money, security, a nine-year marriage, and a seven-year-old daughter. Then one day things begin to fall apart. Alice confesses an erotic fantasy to her husband, and he, having always maintained his fidelity to her, suddenly feels threatened by her honesty. Although she tells him she has never been unfaithful except in thought, it perturbs him and he becomes jealous, anyway, going out on the town in a funk. During the course of the next day and a half, he experiences a sexual odyssey that opens his eyes to the world around him and to his relationship with his wife, a relationship he had apparently taken for granted all the years of his marriage.

His sensual adventures increase in complexity throughout this period, each time taking him to the brink of infidelity. Yet each time, fate steps in and saves him. He must fend off two ravishing models, the grieving daughter of a recently dead patient, a street-corner hooker, the roommate of the street-corner hooker, the very young daughter of a costume-shop proprietor, and a gay hotel clerk. His escapades culminate in an elaborately staged and exceedingly creepy orgy in a country mansion, a sequence with the tone of "The Shining" or Mozart's "Don Giovanni" to it, and one that in turn takes the story in the direction of a mystery thriller.

In all probability, Kubrick doesn't expect the viewer to believe that all of these ominous and sexual encounters really happened so quickly; and, thus, we must view them as more probably the workings of William's imagination, a walking dream, as he experiences a psychological awakening.

All well and good, but the more I watch this film, the more convinced I am that Kubrick meant it as every bit a satire as "Lolita" or "Dr. Strangelove." The director often asks his actors to overarticulate their dialogue, sometimes to comical effect. As the husband and wife test one another's fidelity (note the password to the manor house is the title of Beethoven's opera, "Fidelio"), we get some amusing coincidences. The Hungarian lothario the wife meets at a party is surely a parody of a seducer. The prostitute has books on sociology in her apartment, and the color of her apartment-house door is a vivid red. Then, too, you'll notice references to almost all of Kubrick's other films in this one: a dance tune from "The Shining," costumes reminiscent of "Barry Lyndon," a young Lolita-like temptress, and so on. I can only assume that while Kubrick was making serious points about love and marriage and faithfulness, he was also poking a little fun at the seriousness of it all.

The American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti defined poetry as "what exists between the lines." Perhaps Kubrick was, above all, a poet. He used images the way writers use words. Ferlinghetti also wrote that "Like a bowl of roses, a poem should not have to be explained." When you try to explain Kubrick's films, they don't seem to amount to much. What was "2001," after all? One could spell out its plot, like that of "Eyes Wide Shut," in a minute. But watching these movies unfold is the experience. Maybe one should leave "Eyes Wide Shut" unexplained. Otherwise, it isn't much more than a husband learning to better appreciate and understand his world and his wife. On second thought, maybe that's more than enough.

Video:
I suppose there will always be a degree of controversy concerning the framing ratio of Kubrick's films for home viewing. The fact is, Kubrick shot his later films in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, as he did "Eyes Wide Shut," and then he resized them for theatrical exhibition. He cut "Eyes" to a 1.66:1 ratio for European theater showings and 1.85:1 for American theaters. But here's the catch: Before he died, Kubrick requested that all of his films be transferred for home viewing at their original camera negative ratios, which is what Warner Bros. did with their last batch of Kubrick DVDs. Here on HD DVD, however, we get the 1.85:1 framing (or 1.78:1, filling a widescreen television).

Now, high-def or no high def, remember that Kubrick shot most of this film in natural light, so we find many of the scenes looking darker than usual, especially indoor settings. Add to that the fact that there is a modest film grain present most of the time, a soft focus, and some intentionally golden hues, and you get a picture that is not exactly everyone's idea of high definition. Indeed, the image, despite the 1080 resolution, is more than a tad fuzzy and rough in appearance. However, the black levels are incredibly deep, inky black, and when Kubrick wants the picture to look normal and natural, the image is just as bright and well focused as any movie you'll see. Therefore, although "Eyes Wide Shut" is one of the most beautifully photographed and artistically framed motion pictures of our day, that doesn't mean its color schemes, camera focus, or lighting effects will appeal to everyone, particularly HD fans. I'd say the director was controversial in every department to the very end.

Audio:
The Warner Bros. audio engineers provide sound in Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD 5.1, both of the tracks effectively reproducing the music of Gyorgy Ligeti, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Chris Isaak. While occasionally some strong bass notes come through the subwoofer and a haunting solo piano comes across strikingly, most of the audio processing has only to reproduce dialogue and sporadic music. Certainly, the sound, especially in TrueHD, is smooth, sophisticated, and well focused; it just doesn't have a lot of work to do. I might add, though, that for Kubrick the quiet moments are as effective as the louder ones, so contrasts are important, and the audio handles them nicely, too.

Extras:
The first thing the back cover says about the extras is that the movie is "selectable in both Rated and--for the First Time in North America--Unrated versions." As you probably know, in order to get an "R" rating in the U.S. rather than an NC-17, the filmmaker digitally inserted some characters in front of several risqué shots. OK, so maybe I'm technology challenged, but I could not find the "selectable" part of this business. I put the movie in, and it started playing as any other WB movie on an HD DVD would play; I found no choices involved. I looked in the Special Features for a rated and unrated version; not there. I looked in the scene selections; not there, either. I watched the film, and it appeared to be the unrated version because I could not find any digitally superimposed characters in front of the objectionable material. Yet the back cover prominently gives the movie an "R" rating. I suspect something amiss on the disc or in the back-cover text, and I suspect the latter.

Moving on. The first major bonus item is a three-part documentary titled "The Last Movie: Stanley Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut." It's about forty-three minutes long and divided into three chapters: "The Haven/Mission Control," "Artificial Intelligence or the Writer as Robot," and "Eyes Wide Shut, a Film by Stanley Kubrick." These segments contain comments and remembrances by fellow filmmakers, collaborators, and family members who discuss the man, his methods, and his movies. Of special interest, several of the actors in "Eyes Wide Shut" discuss the director's obsession with retakes. Director and actor Sydney Pollack notes that it was not unusual for Kubrick to ask for twenty or twenty-five takes of a single, simple movement. Kubrick said that the real cost of filmmaking was in the preparation, the script, the sets, and so forth, while the actual shooting was relatively cheap. So, he would shoot and shoot and shoot again in order to have plenty of material from which to choose and cut the final film. Next up is the twenty-minute documentary "Lost Kubrick: The Unfinished Films of Stanley Kubrick," which discusses two of Kubrick's planned works, "Napoleon" and a Holocaust drama he was going to call "The Aryan Papers." After that there is a brief acceptance speech Kubrick gave upon receiving the 1998 Director's Guild of America D.W. Griffith Award, a speech introduced on disc by Jack Nicholson. Then there are three interviews, one with Tom Cruise, eight minutes; one with Nicole Kidman, eighteen minutes; and one with Steven Spielberg, eight minutes. All of these special features are in standard definition.

Additionally, the HD DVD includes a theatrical trailer and two TV spots in full-screen; thirty-eight scene selections; English, French, Spanish, and Japanese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Things conclude with WB's usual HD DVD features: pop-up menus, bookmarks, a guide to elapsed time, a zoom-and-pan feature, and an Elite Red HD case.

Parting Thoughts:
In the HD DVD version of the movie, whatever its rating, expect lots of nudity. Kubrick establishes the movie's tone at the outset when Ms. Kidman drops her dress in the opening scene, revealing purely Ms. Kidman beneath. Still, for all its sex and nudity, "Eyes Wide Shut" is not a sexy or erotic film. Kubrick does not want to show how sexy life is but how much sex affects us. He keeps the viewer as detached from the film's eroticism as the good Doctor Harford is while examining one of his beautiful, naked patients. The film is a visually stunning achievement, a meticulously photographed exercise in mood and imagery, the poetic evocation of a dream. Yes, it is overlong, and, yes, it is slow going. And, no, it does not sustain our attention as "2001" does. But "Eyes Wide Shut" is fascinating every inch of the way, and people will no doubt talk about it, pro and con, for years to come.

Warner Bros. have made "Eyes Wide Shut" available in HD DVD, Blu-ray, and standard-definition. All three formats are available individually, and the SD versions are also available in the big "Stanley Kubrick Director's Series" box, which includes "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange," "The Shining," "Full Metal Jacket," "Eyes Wide Shut," and the documentary "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures." Most of the films in SD come in two-disc special editions, with the exception of the single-disc "Full Metal Jacket" and the documentary.

I should add in closing that after watching "Eyes Wide Shut" in HD, I watched the standard-def version, which also proclaims on the box that it is "selectable in Both Rated and...Unrated versions." But I still couldn't find anything except what appears to be the Unrated version on the disc.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
7
Extras
7
Film Value
7