In typical Kubrick fashion of course nothing is ever too simple. His casting however seemed to come rather quickly. He settled on then married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as William and Alice Harford who like nearly any actors alive would jump up and down at a chance to work with Kubrick. He had earned his reputation, and perhaps after going a younger and unproven route for Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick may have felt like he needed seriously heavy hitting movie stars to carry his next film, especially considering all the delays his previous projects faced. With Hollywood’s then most powerful couple the film was at the very least guaranteed to get some financing and people would wait, a quality that was essential for a new project from the notoriously slow working maestro.
Stylistically Kubrick hasn’t changed much picture to picture or even genre to genre. Since first using the steadicam in The Shining it seemed like a device invented for Kubrick. Few things work better to show vast space, introduce a host of characters, or give us a lot of information at once. However it never really seems in Kubrick’s work that he uses longer takes to draw attention to themselves. This isn’t the opening of Touch of Evil, these aren’t Bela Tarr’s exercises in extreme long shots, or a never ending traffic jam ala Jean Luc Godard. Instead it is to a purpose, and no sooner does he waltz us through a party that he quickens up the pace with a few shorter shots, anything to serve the scene or the film itself. They are a means to an end, and a lifetime of admiring Max Ophuls hasn’t seemed to change Kubrick in the slightest.
The beginning of the film seems like a comic act sexual frustration. While flirting with two very attractive women Dr. William Harford is called upstairs to see to a beautiful woman played by Julienne Davis who has overdosed on a mixture of heroin and cocaine. She is completely naked yet completely incapacitated, the would be entertainment for the party’s rich host Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). No one attempts to cover her up and there is just an open display of nudity here, very European but it is the first time Harford will encounter this woman but not the last time he’ll be unable to have her sexually. Downstairs Alice is drunkenly flirting with an older man who seems hell bent on getting her to disregard her marital vows and although she is playing along never takes the bait. Her self denial is another of the many near misses sexually that punctuate the early part of the film if not the entire picture.
In perhaps the films only real gratifying sexual experience comes after the party when Dr. and Mrs. Harford release their pent up sexual frustration on each other and actually have sex with each other. Seems a small detail at the time, but when you see how much failure is associated with sex throughout the rest of the film, it seems supremely Catholic that only the sex between a husband and wife can go without complications. The next day things proceed at a brisk pace. In a bit of a time-condensed montage it takes the couple through their next day, where he sees patients including a young topless woman who he examines in the company of a nurse, yet another roadblock to sexual gratification, and she looks for work while caring for their daughter.
That evening though things really seem to slow down. Where we seem to feel we’re reaching the end of the day the night and the film are just picking up. They decide to roll a joint as you may imagine some privileged rich people might do recreationally, however things take on an uncomfortable tone. It could be a clichéd married couple discussion/fight. She confronts him about the two women he was so openly flirting with the night before, asking if he slept with them. We know he’s innocent in practice, but we wonder how innocent he is in thought, after all had he not gotten called away to help Victor what could have happened? It is this that Alice suspects as well, and he seems to reassure her more with the idea that he’s married and he wouldn’t have sex with those women out of responsibility to her and not for lack of desire. Taking the “men have needs women don’t” stance she fires back with a fantasy about a naval officer they met on vacation that Bill in his infinite confidence doesn’t even remember. However the seed was planted and before things can get resolved he gets a house call taking him to the house of a dead patient.
Now I’m sure he was thinking, smoke a little pot with my wife, unwind, have sex, go to bed. Now he’s getting dressed and leaving the house late to see to a dead patient. While in the cab he has the first vision of the naval officer helping to remove his wife’s underwear. As the film progresses these visions of the two get more and more graphic. Once at the house he finds himself embarrassingly hit on by the deceased’s daughter. Confessing her love for him puts him at a spot and she starts kissing him only to be interrupted by her fiancé. It is the second interruption that takes place, but it’s already starting to set up a pattern. He leaves but rather than hop a cab ride home which would leave us with scarcely a plot he wanders around the village. He runs into a slightly clumsy but incredibly attractive prostitute named Domino played by Vinessa Shaw and the two go to her apartment. They make an arrangement, put on some music, but before things go to far Alice calls and the mood is spoiled. He pays her anyways and apologizes for the interruption. Strike three, he should be out and leave, but well of course not. As we’ll see not too long after, not sealing the deal with Domino will prove to be one of his better bits of luck.
He runs into his old medical school buddy Nick whose playing piano at a jazz club. They chat and Nick says too much about his next gig he’s going to, a rich sex party where everyone comes in costume and masks. Bill gets the password and sets off trying to get in. A pattern of Bill throwing money away has set itself up in paying Domino without actually doing anything. He visit’s a closed costume shop where he agrees to pay the owner $200 extra for the outfit. There in one of the film’s more surreal moments the owner finds his underage daughter played by Leelee Sobieski with two dressed up older Asian men. She could easily be an Eastern European version of Lolita and seems as interested in Bill as those two strange men. Shrugged off in a moment of surrealism, he gets what he’s after and takes a cab where he offers the driver a total of $100 above the meter to wait for him outside. Again he seems to be going far out of his way to have sex when nearly everywhere he went that night it was being offered freely.
He’s quickly found out, partially due to his inconspicuous cab waiting outside the gates, also for the receipt in his pocket, and the second password that doesn’t exist. At this part of the film more questions than answers seem to pop up. Who is the masked woman who warns him? How does she know it’s him? Why is she even helping him? We get a little closure with who she is and it starts to make sense why she would go out of her way for him, but that’s a complete mystery at the time. After he is found out and she intercedes on his behalf he is left feeling like something awful might be happening to that woman and it’s his fault. Before he can think he goes home where Alice wakes from a dream to tell him that she dreamt she was having sex and everyone around her was as well, making a scene that sounded somewhat like a mirror image of the house that Bill just came back from.
In the morning of course nothing seems back to normal. Nick seems to have vanished. The clerk at the hotel is another delightful Kubrick oddity. This is the second time in the film that perhaps a homosexual element to Dr. Harford is confronted. The clerk makes offhand remarks about “big men” coming with Nick holding out his hands as if to indicate the size of their genitals rather than the width of their shoulders. The night before Bill is confronted by a group of young men who run into him and call him a faggot, taunting him as they pass by seemingly for no reason. It’s a moment to shake your head at, but perhaps with the clerk we’re getting some clue into just why Bill is so frustrated, maybe he’s not even with the right team?
Returning the costume we find the young daughter still in her underwear as the two Asian men from the night before leave fully dressed and the father says something about “coming to an understanding”. No one watching that can possibly imagine what type of understanding a man can come to where he can let his underage daughter spend the night with two middle aged Asian men. He even seems to leave the option open that should Bill need his daughter’s services they could be arranged. Nothing is for no reason in Kubrick film so at this point when we learn the mask is missing we expect it to play a role at some point later in the picture, but not entirely sure when or how?
The avenues of sex that seemed so open the night before don’t seem to be there anymore. The daughter of the recently deceased he gives a call only to find the boyfriend answering the phone. He goes back to Domino’s apartment where he meets her attractive room mate. The two begin to flirt with each other to a point where you wonder if everyone is on some crazy pheromone dust that makes them all horny as hell, when she lets him know that Domino tested positive for HIV. The news appears like a shock to Bill, but we know as does he that they never actually did anything the night before, perhaps the warning of safety that should have been heeded at the party should work now. Sometimes the best sex is the kind you don’t get, a shining beacon for marital fidelity to be sure. Nearly all his inquiries into what happened to the girl who saved him or his friend Nick seem to meet with more questions than answers.
It isn’t until Victor steps in that we start to get some of our answers. The woman overdosed, however we can’t be sure that that was the result of her interceding on his behalf. Sure it seemed cryptic and ominous at the time, but weren’t those people in cloaks and masks just a bunch of horny millionaires, not some cultish murderers right? After all this is the same woman who overdosed in Victor’s bathroom during the Christmas party, which at the very least explains why she would have tried saving him at the party. He himself said it was only a matter of time for her. He’s told Nick was put on a plane back to his family in Seattle, but we have no evidence of that. Bill leaves Victor’s feeling like he knows even less and his powerless to figure anything out. They know too much about him, and there was already some bizarre bald man following him earlier, they knew about him talking to the hotel desk clerk, and when he went to the gate of the estate there was a typed warning waiting for him.
If that wasn’t incentive enough to give it up, he comes home to find his missing mask lying on his pillow next to his sleeping wife. The creepiest moment of the film makes us wonder if perhaps she knew anything about it, or if these people really could be anywhere they wanted. He confesses his “thought crime” as it were because after all he never really did anything, but that’s the point. It was her fantasy about the naval officer that sent him on this mad quest and she hadn’t actually “done” anything, still the damage of thoughts and desires can be far more powerful than deeds themselves. She doesn’t take the news well, but things appear on the mend. I will say amongst all filmmakers though, few can lay claim to a more perfect final line of their films than when Alice says:
“There’s something we need to do as soon as possible.”
“What’s that?” says Bill.
The lesson that sex is between a man and wife doesn’t seem to be wasted on Mrs. Harford. The fact that these upper class people use such vulgar terms as “fuck” adds a great degree of nuance to the characters and lets us know that Alice is far from the perfect self sacrificing spouse that Bill may have envisioned her as. Or perhaps I’m misreading the ultimate message here, simply put married people need to keep it in their pants.