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Dreaming With 'Eyes Wide Shut'

After three years of false rumors, and a maddening mix of secretiveness and hype, Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" is here. The 13th and last film of the legendary director, who died with shocking suddenness in March days after making the final cut, turns out to be his most personal work. After all, it deals with the most personal of subjects, sex. And by casting Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in the leading roles, Kubrick charged his cinematic batteries with maximum sexual voltage. He wastes no time in snapping the audience's eyes wide open. In the very first shot we see Kidman, her back to the camera, snake-hipping out of a black dress, to stand there nude in possibly the most beautiful human image ever to open a movie.

Female beauty is a subject that has been treated so crudely in movies for so long that it's almost shocking to see the care with which Kubrick handles this classical and potent theme of all art. The story deals with desire, an ineradicable appetite that threatens to breach the structures that society has built to contain it. Real-life spouses Cruise and Kidman play Dr. William and Alice Harford, married nine years with a little daughter and an affluent lifestyle. They find themselves going through an ordeal of sudden, inexplicable passion directed toward others, which puts a "sword in the bed" between them.

That phrase comes from the novella "Dream Story," by Arthur Schnitzler, that is the source of the screenplay by Frederic Raphael and Kubrick. Schnitzler is the Austrian writer whose psychological insight an astonished Freud compared "enviously" with his own. Kubrick had wanted to film Schnitzler's story for 25 years. In 1971 he told a French magazine that he'd been considering the possibility of making it into a hard-core pornographic film with big stars and a big budget. What he did do was make a remarkably faithful film version of Schnitzler's story, transferring it from fin de siecle Vienna to New York at the fin of this siecle. Bill and Alice go through an erotic odyssey that begins when they attend a fashionable Christmas party at which both are approached sexually. Bill is corralled by a pair of enticing predators, while a champagne-tipsy Alice fends off the moves of a Continental lounge lizard. The film, which began in mundane reality (while Bill dresses, Alice sits charmingly on the potty), melts into a dream ambience, the party lights blazing in blurry golden halos. As Alice and the slick seducer dance, the angles of their intertwined bodies are calibrated with a precise sensual tension that's pure Kubrickian choreography.

The tensions increase. Back home, Alice confesses a spasm of desire she once had for a naval officer she had only glimpsed, but for whom she was ready to give up everything, including her family, for just one night of passion. Both are shocked as the apparent solidity of their lives is undermined by fantasies that seem more powerful than reality. Later, Bill meets Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), a pianist who plays at masked orgies for the rich. Bill rents a costume from a dealer whose sideline is pimping for his 15-year-old daughter (Leelee Sobieski). Bill sneaks into the orgy, a kind of satanic ritual of mass sex, where he is discovered and is saved from death by a masked woman who volunteers to take his place and his fate. (It's this sequence that Kubrick had to alter to avoid an NC-17 rating. He inserted digitalized figures to obscure the sexual activity, which he had shot discreetly and distantly. The effect is, frankly, annoying and ludicrous. In one of the last "Friday the 13th" horrors, the monster Jason punches the head off one of his victims. With the censors it's decapitation yes, copulation no.)

After the orgy, events explode with the fierce softness of dreams. Mutual confessions by Bill and Alice lead to an emotional showdown. From the already famous "mirror" love scene, played with a carnal sweetness that's rare in the brittle, cynical sexuality of film today, to the anger, fear and pain of their final confrontation, Cruise and Kidman are open and touching. There's strong work from supporting players like Marie Richardson as a casual acquaintance who confounds Bill with a confession of love. The kaleidoscope of emotions on her face is one of the most powerful moments in the film. Under Kubrick's tight rein, the film devolves into a complex crescendo of feeling ranging from pure lust to loving tenderness. But there are ambiguous moments. Despite the surface modernization, the aura of Schnitzler's fin de siecle hangs heavily over the film. Much of the dialogue is straight from the English translation of the story, and some of it has a stilted quality that doesn't tally with contemporary rhythms. Oddly, this is most true in the extended scene that isn't in the original, an encounter between Bill and his rich friend Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) in the latter's billiard room. The cadences, locutions and pauses in their conversation lend an artificiality to what's meant to be an exchange of great portent.

These lapses can be rationalized as part of the movie's dream atmosphere. The film clearly meant a great deal to Kubrick. After the apocalyptic satire of "Dr. Strangelove," the cosmic voids of "2001: A Space Odyssey," the sado-militarism of "Full Metal Jacket," Kubrick, approaching his 70s, came back to the ecstatic torments from which we struggle to create love. If some nagging sense of anachronism, a bit too much Freudian Vienna in his postmodern New York, prevents "Eyes Wide Shut" from the top of his list, it is Kubrick's most humane film. The final shots of a shaken Cruise and Kidman are moving, and suggest the courage that allowed them to spend nearly two years of their lives with the arch-controller Kubrick. The film ends with an unexpected last line, Alice's advice to her husband on how to start the process of reconciliation, advice that is at once practical, eloquent and obscene.