Initial viewings of Stanley Kubrick’s movies can be deceptive because his films all tend to be emotionally convoluted in some way; one has to follow them as if through a maze. A character that Kubrick might seem to treat cruelly the first time around (e.g., Elisha Cook Jr.’s fall guy in The Killing) can appear the object of tender compassion on a subsequent viewing. The director’s desire to avoid sentimentality at all costs doesn’t preclude feeling, as some critics have claimed, but it does create ambiguity and a distanced relationship to the central characters. Kubrick’s final feature very skillfully portrays the dark side of desire in a successful marriage; since the 60s he’d been thinking about filming Arthur Schnitzler’s brilliant novella “Traumnovelle,” and working with Frederic Raphael, he’s adapted it faithfully–at least if one allows for all the differences between Viennese Jews in the 20s and New York WASPs in the 90s. Schnitzler’s tale, about a young doctor contemplating various forms of adultery and debauchery after discovering that his wife has entertained comparable fantasies, has a somewhat Kafkaesque ambiguity, wavering between dream and waking fantasy (hence Kubrick’s title), and all the actors do a fine job of traversing this delicate territory. Yet the story has been altered to make the successful doctor (Tom Cruise) more of a hypocrite and his wife (powerfully played by Nicole Kidman) a little feistier; Kubrick’s also added a Zeus-like tycoon (played to perfection by Sydney Pollack) who pretends to explain the plot shortly before the end but in fact only summarizes the various mysteries, his cynicism and chilly access to power revealing that Kubrick is more of a moralist than Schnitzler. To accept the premises and experiences of this movie, you have to be open to an expressionist version of New York with scant relation to the 90s (apart from cellular phones and AIDS) and a complex reading of a marriage that assumes the relations between men and women haven’t essentially changed in the past 70-odd years. This is a remarkably gripping, suggestive, and inventive piece of storytelling that, like Kubrick’s other work, is likely to grow in mystery and intensity over time. Esquire, Ford City, Gardens, Golf Mill, Lake, Lincoln Village, Norridge, Village North, Webster Place. –Jonathan Rosenbaum
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.