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At the Movies

Bored wide shut


There was no way that Eyes Wide Shut (Warner Bros.) could have lived up to its buildup. Unfortunately, instead of being the dazzling climax of the late Stanley Kubrick’s justly celebrated career (“2001,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Paths of Glory”), it turns out to be a pretentious bore.

Alice (Nicole Kidman) is married to Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), a successful society doctor; they live in an opulent New York apartment with more art on its walls than in most small museums. In the movie’s first extended sequence they go to a party at a Manhattan mansion where Alice dances languorously with a Hungarian would-be seducer, to the accompaniment of dialogue one might charitably describe as camp. Though the effect is to make Alice seem like a silly schoolgirl, she apparently notices two other young women at the party competing for her husband’s attentions, motivating a nasty late-night exchange. Alice taunts her husband’s complacency by revealing her passion for a naval officer she had seen the previous summer.

It’s fair enough to defend Kubrick against accusations of pornography -- those who attend because of what they’ve heard of the brief sex scene between Cruise and Kidman (husband and wife in real life) should ask for their money back. The problem is rather that Kubrick’s insistence on total control distances us from the action, leaving us indifferent as to whether Bill’s subsequent night on the town will destroy his marriage. Meanwhile Kidman practically drops out of the movie, except for brief, unconvincing scenes with her daughter.

The orgy of Eyes Wide Shut makes such an experience seem fearsome and pleasureless; when Bill is told that those attending are the top members of the power elite it’s hard to suppress a snicker. The masques are fine, and there is chanting and organ music, but it’s an embarrassing giveaway that only the women are naked.

Though Kubrick was a genuine artist, the reduction of Eyes Wide Shut to the deliberate control of camera movements and shadings of color reminded me of the pathetic director I worked with in a university theater who never cared what plays were chosen for production; he believed he could put his personal stamp on the audience’s experience by using some piece of stage furniture to express its symbolism. Though the ads describe Eyes Wide Shut as “mesmerizing,” don’t try to worry out some deep meaning: It isn’t really about anything.

Instead of a sad example of directorial genius wasted on an ill-chosen source, The Blair Witch Project (Artisan Entertainment) shows that success can be achieved despite -- in part, because of -- extreme amateurishness. The most successful horror film in years, thousands have responded to Witch as a genuine documentary, found footage left behind in the Maryland woods by three young film-makers (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard) who disappear while researching the legend of the Blair witch.

Spectators who would comfortably remind themselves “it’s only a movie” when seeing a studio horror film have no protection against Witch; its very artlessness is proof of its authenticity. As director Eduardo Sanchez says, “Horror is something that works in the viewer’s mind, not really on screen.”

Donahue, the project’s leader, keeps saying she knows where she is going, and insists on keeping camera and recording equipment rolling as the group becomes more and more frightened. The actors are basically put through an eight-day survival game and forced to improvise most of the dialogue. Those taken in by the “mockumentary” become alarmed at the fragmented bits of action and are prey to suggestion when the screen goes black. Others will rightly suspect that Sanchez and co-director Daniel Myrick created creepy sounds and visual effects while the actors were shivering in their tent.

You don’t go to Witch for acting: Donahue, Williams, and Leonard yell a lot and look scared, but that’s it. Unlike most horror movies, it doesn’t have sex -- unless you count the thousands of times the actors used the obligatory four-letter word. You don’t even get to see a monster. My instinct is to root for any film that was made for $35,000 but discussion of this one belongs on the business page or in an article on marketing via cable and cyberspace.

The Dinner Game (Gaumont) may only be a French farce, but it’s a refreshing movie-going alternative. Directed with a sure hand by Francis Veber (La Cage aux Folles), its title refers to a mean-spirited game in which young sophisticates vie with each other to bring the biggest idiot to their group dinner. Smug Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) learns about a hopeless monomaniac, Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), who builds elaborate architectural marvels out of matchsticks, and invites him as his guest. On the appointed night Brochant’s wife leaves in protest, but when Pignon arrives and learns that his host has hurt his back and can’t go out, he’s so intent on being useful he refuses to leave. In helping Brochant to a chair, of course, Pignon proceeds to fall on top of him.

This sets the pattern for a series of comic reversals in which the supposed fool consistently makes the condition of his would-be tormentor worse. The confusion deepens as, in an effort to locate the hideout where his wife may be staying, Pignon enlists the help of his fellow tax-inspector, Just LeBlanc (Francis Huster), who happens to be handling the case of the suspected lover.

A list of such flip-flops can’t convey the delight of The Dinner Game, which is a product of Veber’s expert pacing and the perfect timing of veteran clowns like Villeret and Huster. The movie ends with a final comic twist.

In a dreary season, it’s encouraging to add a bit of good news. Eric Rohmer’s Perceval, a delightful presentational retelling of Chretien de Troyes’ Grail story that concludes in a deeply religious spirit, is finally available on video. If it’s not at your favorite store, rent it from Facets, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., Chicago IL 60614 (312-281-9075).

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie critic.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999