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Jewish World Review July 27, 1999 /14 Av 5759

Don Feder

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Strange love in Kubrick's last film -- TRUE DEGENERACY has little to do with people taking their clothes off. Instead, it's about corruption of the soul -- the ideas we embrace that make the world a colder and more unlovely place.

Stanley Kubrick's last film ("Eyes Wide Shut") is degenerate in the profoundest sense of the word. From the director of "Lolita" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" comes a deeply cynical look at men, women, marriage and longings of the heart. The "legendary" filmmaker, who never had much of value to say, ended his career mired in misanthropy.

It's the serious films that shape our consciousness. "Eyes Wide Shut" is more toxic than a dozen Mel Gibson revenge fantasies wrapped in a slew of teen sex movies.

"Eyes" opens with a nude shot of Nicole Kidman and ends with her character, whose confession sends her doctor husband (Tom Cruise) wandering through a nightmare sexual landscape, uttering the "F" word.

The beginning and end, and everything in between, stress Kubrick's thesis -- that sex, even within a seemingly happy marriage, can only be raw and brutal.

The movie's moral is human relationships are about need or greed, that we use each other, and that there's no permanence or commitment (and very little warmth) involved.

With the possible exception of Cruise, who struggles with his passions, the film is devoid of decency. Its repertoire of the repulsive includes a neurotic woman who throws herself at the doctor in the presence of her father's corpse, a wealthy patient who slips away from his Christmas party to get heavy with a hooker who ODs and the proprietor of a costume shop who pimps for his underage daughter.

Bill and Alice Harford (Cruise and Kidman) appear to have a perfect life -- glamour, affluence, elegant New York apartment and adorable daughter. It's all a fraud, Kubrick tells us --- there is no happiness; normalcy is an illusion.

Husband and wife are more than vaguely discontented. Each is simultaneously jealous of the other and hankering for adventure in strange bedrooms.

In the midst of a pot-fueled argument, Alice confesses to Bob that on their last vacation she developed an instant itch for a young naval officer (who she glimpsed but never spoke to) so intense that she would have given up everything -- marriage, child and home -- had he but crooked a finger in her direction.

Later, to emphasize her contempt for him, Alice describes to Bill a dream where she's at a party having sex with so many men that she losses count. She sees him watching her and laughs at him.

The first disclosure and a phone call set Bill off on his erotic odyssey, which ends at a rather formal orgy at a country mansion. Everyone wears Venetian masks, even when naked. Set to menacing music, the revelry mixes sex and death, another of the film's recurrent themes.

At the end, husband and wife forgive each other -- he her fantasies, she his near-sex experiences -- and confess their mutual love, or is it obsessive need?

Some reviewers took the ending for an affirmation of marriage. It was anything but. Of their relationship, Bill asks, "Forever?" Alice replies that the word "frightens" her.

Again, her last crude utterance (that she needs to copulate with Bill, ASAP) emphasizes Kubrick's cynicism about matrimony and the human condition.

"Eyes Wide Shut" has only the insinuation of violence. The nudity is de-eroticized. (One gets the impression that, like most moderns, Kubrick secretly despised sex.) The orgy scene is highly stylized, with coupling couples discreetly hidden by moving figures.

The director's widow Christine says "Eyes Wide Shut" has "nothing to do with sex and everything to do with fear." Not to mention loathing. Disdain runs through Kubrick's movies, where people are weak, foolish and a bundle of neuroses who can't get anything right.

His cinematic leave-taking is the season's sickest film. Sick in its assessment of humanity, sick in its skepticism about the possibility of happiness, sick in its stunted soul.

In an era when one in two marriages ends in divorce and teens point to the president of the United States as an excuse for promiscuity, do we need more cynicism about love and loyalty?

The author of the just-published "Hillary and Bill: A Marriage" discloses that when Clinton finally confessed his affair with Lewinsky to his wife, she slapped him in the face so hard that it left a visible red mark. In "Eyes Wide Shut," Kubrick did the same to the middle-class conventions he despised.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder can be reached by clicking here.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate