(USA 1999 159m) DVD1/2
p/d Stanley Kubrick w Frederic Raphael, Stanley Kubrick novel “Traumnovelle” by Arthur Schnitzler ph Larry Smith ed Nigel Galt m Jocelyn Pokk (including “Jazz Suite” by Dimitri Shostakovich) art Les Tomkins, Roy Walker cos Marit Allen
Tom Cruise (Dr Bill Harford), Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford), Marie Richardson (Marion), Sydney Pollack (Victor Ziegler), Rade Scherbedgia (Milich), Leelee Sobieski (Milich’s daughter), Todd Field (Nick Nightingale), Alan Cumming (desk clerk), Vinessa Shaw (Domino, the hooker), Faye Masterson (Sally), Sky Dumont (Sandor Szavost),
Stanley Kubrick’s final film must surely qualify as one of the most misunderstood of recent times. Much of the blame for that, of course, must be laid at the late master’s own feet due to the laborious shoot, beginning in late 1996, going through cast replacements and all sorts of delays before the final release, and then Kubrick’s untimely death in post-production. This in addition to a frankly awful marketing campaign helped the film to its modest critical reception and decidedly cold box-office performance.
Bill Harford and his gorgeous wife are about to leave for a Manhattan Christmas party at their friends, the Zieglers. There he runs into an old friend from medical school and helps Ziegler deal with a woman ODing in his upstairs room. Soon after, while sharing a marijuana joint, Bill and Alice share a long, painful discussion about their sexual desires, and Alice reveals a dream in which she had an affair with a sailor. The illusion of the perfect marriage shattered, Bill goes off into the night to see to an emergency call from another of their friends, and his evening has only just begun.
A decade on and it still hasn’t gone away. The break up of its two stars barely a year after its release conjured up theories about life imitating art, with the strain of the shoot even brought up as an excuse for the marital break-up. Thankfully, the Cruise-Kidman sideshow is now but a memory and one can look at the film in the cold light of day. It’s easy to see where the critics were so turned off. Cruise’s performance was criticised for being flat, and the erotic orgy sequence seen as risible. The main problem was that Kubrick was revelling in ambiguity as he had in The Shining, which also received mixed notices at the time (most audiences and critics must have everything explained, not left to interpretation). Is the entire plot of the film from the moment Bill goes out that evening to the finale all a dream in his head? Certainly some sequences have a surreal edge to them that evoke a dream, such as the encounter with the costume hirer Milich and his Lolitaesque daughter and, indeed, the orgy itself. Just as in a dream, Cruise’s Bill is not acting so much as reacting to what is going on around him and, as such, his performance is quite perfect. The escalation of potential murder conspiracies in his head are worthy of not only a dream, but one fuelled by recreational drugs. As he wanders the streets of New York, though we see little of Kidman, she’s always in his thoughts, either his imagining of her illicit sex or coquettish close-ups. Indeed, it has been suggested by some that the film may have worked more obviously with Kidman playing all the women he meets on his travels, thus showing how, in his mind, he couldn’t’ escape his wife. It would have been a touch worthy of Buñuel, but the ambiguity would have been dissipated, the entire plot then seen by everyone as a dream.
Whatever one’s thoughts on Kubrick’ intentions, one cannot help but admire the visuals, Kubrick’s mise-en-scène, the lighting and the sets all combining seamlessly to create an illusion within an illusion (we believe ourselves in New York, but apart from a few 2nd unit shots, we know it’s in a British studio). As Bill, Cruise gives a fearless performance while Kidman is simply out of this world. After watching this for the first time, one is puzzled, irritated as if by an itch you cannot scratch. You just know you have to come back to it, and find yourself arguing internally for days. Any film that raises such discussion, such polarised opinions, has to be a powerful piece of work, but it’s more than that; it’s the final masterpiece of a director who refused to conform to expectations.