Stanley Kubrick’s long-awaited adaptation of a 1926 Arthur Schnitzler novel about corrosive sexual jealousy and the persistence of temptation has arrived on the screen in a protracted form which seems at once both strikingly avant-garde and oddly quaint.
The story’s trajectory is the inward odyssey of Dr. William Harford (Tom Cruise), an upscale physician whose wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) has given up a life in the arts to become a hausfrau, attending to the couple’s young daughter. In the first of a series of leisurely set pieces, the couple attend an ultrachic Christmas party where a tipsy Alice has a flirtatious encounter with a Hungarian smoothie, a vaguely sinister apparition who hovers over her like an effete hawk, quoting Ovid and various pointed epigrams about the hypocrisy of marriage.
Meanwhile, Dr. Bill is halfheartedly fending off the advances of two attractive young models and seems about to give in when he’s suddenly yanked away by a medical emergency in the private chambers of the party’s host, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). This tumble from the beckoning heat of fantasy fulfillment into a wakening cold pool of water – in this instance the doctor is being summoned to administer to a prostitute who has OD’d – is to recur several times throughout the film.
Back in their well-appointed apartment after the party, Bill and Alice share a joint and drift into one of those dangerously baiting conversations that almost every couple has experienced at some point. Alice wants to know if, when he left the party, Bill was sneaking off to fuck the two girls she saw hanging onto him. He assures her that he has too much consideration for her to do such a thing. This outrages her, since he doesn’t deny the adulterous impulse but rather asserts that he’s too principled to act on it.
And so the movie’s first glaringly anachronistic note is struck. What year is this? What culture shaped these people? A sophisticated, well-educated ’90s woman living in NYC is shocked that her husband has sexual fantasies that don’t involve her and is not mollified by his dedication to monogamy? Obviously we are back in Schnitzler’s Vienna where people still trembled at the implications of Freud’s recent revelations ... and yet we’re seeing Cruise and Kidman in the modern world.
Alice retaliates by revealing a fantasy indiscretion of her own and Bill moodily leaves the apartment – summoned again – and into a series of adventures best left for the viewer to discover. Suffice it to say that this breaks down into a movie of parts – a brilliant passage here, a thumpingly bad one there, and a few sequences – such as the much-touted orgy – where brilliance and badness converge.
Visually the film is extraordinary. The approximation of natural light, first used so effectively by Kubrick in Barry Lyndon, has become a subtle expressive tool – and the gliding camera, a bit overused in The Shining, here used discretely, adds to the film’s dreamlike mood.
But one can’t ignore the overabundance of portentous pauses, the excruciatingly drawn-out denouement or the cobwebs clinging to the film’s central view of sexual relationships. There’s much beauty here but no edge – a surprise coming from Kubrick and unfortunately the final one.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].