Cinema: All Eyes On Them

The theme is sexual obsession. The stars are Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The director is Stanley Kubrick. Who could look anywhere else?

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When Warner Bros. (which is owned by Time Warner, the parent company of this magazine) announced the project in 1995, it merely stated that Kubrick was making "a story of sexual jealousy and obsession starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman." Officially, no one has added anything substantive to that press release in the years since--which is, of course, why the rumor that Cruise and Kidman play psychiatrists drawn into a web of sexual intrigue with their patients got started. And the one about the mad genius Kubrick making an NC-17-rated blue movie. And the one that has Cruise wearing a dress in one sequence.

None of these are remotely true. Movies don't always follow the books on which they're based, but in this case anyone able to track down the novel from which the movie has been rather faithfully adapted by Kubrick and co-writer Frederic Raphael would have been more in the know. Titled Traumnovelle (Dream Story), it was first published in 1926 by Arthur Schnitzler, a Viennese playwright, physician and friend of Freud's, and has been available in paperback in the U.S. since 1995. Like a lot of the novels on which good movies are based, it is an entertaining, erotically charged fiction of the second rank, in need of the vivifying physicalization of the screen and the kind of narrative focus a good director can bring to imperfect but provocative life--especially when he has been thinking about it as long as Kubrick had.

Kubrick's widow Christiane remembers his asking her to read the book as far back as 1968, when he was looking for something to follow 2001. She also remembers not caring greatly for it at the time, probably because she had become "allergic to psychiatric conversations." But Kubrick, she recalls, took the passion of their arguments about the "dream story" as evidence that material so stirring must be worth doing. In any case, using Jay Cocks, then a young film reporter for TIME, as a front, on the grounds that Cocks might acquire rights to the book more cheaply than a famous filmmaker could, Kubrick bought the property. For the next 2 1/2 decades the book haunted him.

One could see, and somehow not quite see, the movie in this story of a fashionable yet conscientious physician and his wife whose nine-year marriage has produced an adored child, genuine mutual affection and a growing sexual restlessness. Everything depended on its realization. Cruise's character, Dr. William Harford, is in some ways a dim and passive fellow, self-victimized and hard to care for. His wife Alice would have been easy to play either ditsy or bitchy. But there is in Cruise a kind of passionate watchfulness and in Kidman a desperate and touching candor, and they keep drawing us past the narrative's improbabilities to its human heart. As for Kubrick, he is typically unsentimental and tough-minded, but his tracking shots are as unselfconscious as ever, gracefully enfolding us in his story.

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