Who Were Those Masked Men?

Why the story makes no sense.
Aug. 11 1999 3:30 AM

Who Were Those Masked Men?

And other mysteries of Eyes Wide Shut and the rest of this summer's movies.

33000_33056_30024345_eyeswideshut

Here is a sampling of improbable movie moments from the summer of 1999: A young man takes a sudden notion to hump an apple pie; a gargantuan crocodile inexplicably migrates from its tropical habitat to set up shop in a frigid Maine lake; a trio of doomed documentarians, being stalked in the woods by a furry witch, never stops filming and videotaping themselves even as they are supposedly jumping out of their skins with terror; the search for an Alzheimer's cure leads to the inadvertent creation of oversized mako sharks with brains so enhanced they are able to apply the principles of hydraulic engineering to their deadly advantage, to say nothing of operating commercial kitchen equipment.

All these scenes have earned their place in the annals of inanity, but nothing in American Pie, Lake Placid, The Blair Witch Project, or Deep Blue Sea could rival an early scene in Eyes Wide Shut where a silver-haired Hungarian smoothie dancing with Nicole Kidman purrs into her ear, "I'm delighted to meet you, Alice. Did you ever read the Latin poet Ovid on the art of love?"

The chances of meeting a sophisticated Upper West Side woman in New York who would fall for a line like that are about as remote as encountering a singing possum in your basement, but Kidman's character continues to flirt with this loser during the longest and most excruciating dance scene in movie history. OK, OK, she is drunk, having just chug-a-lugged a glass of champagne off a waiter's tray, but why is she drunk? There is no motivation behind her furious determination to get soused at this party; in fact, Eyes Wide Shut seems to exist in a motivation-free environment all its own.

Even though critics have been chewing on Eyes Wide Shut for weeks, its reality problems are so severe that I have decided to call myself in as a specialist. Let me state at the outset that I am not one to deny a master such as Stanley Kubrick all the logical wiggle room he needs (never once have I complained about the majestic incomprehensibility of 2001: A Space Odyssey), and I am perfectly aware that there is a case to be made that Eyes Wide Shut is a masterpiece of dreamy and purposeful distortion. But after sitting through it twice, I must report that the stronger case is that it's just a really dumb movie.

The longest stretch of Eyes Wide Shut features Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) on an endless nocturnal prowl, perturbed by his wife's needling confession that she once had a sexual fantasy about a naval officer she saw in a hotel lobby. Walking the lonely streets of not-quite-New York (the movie was filmed in London), Harford is accosted by a gang of yahoos who harass him for being a "faggot." Huh? There's no discernible reason why they should suspect him of, as they put it, "playing for the pink team." Certainly the snugglesome prostitute he encounters on the next block has no such impression when she invites him into her charmingly messy apartment. "Don't worry," she says, "I don't keep track of the time"--a singularly carefree strategy for a volume business.

B ut it's what happens to Harford after he leaves the prostitute's apartment that forms the bewildering centerpiece of Eyes Wide Shut. A former medical school classmate-turned-lounge pianist tips him off to an exclusive orgy, one that requires a password and must be attended in tuxedo, hooded cape, and carnival mask. Harford procures these items from the proprietor of a surreal costume shop and then takes a cab to a wooded estate. Upon uttering the password his friend has revealed to him, he is escorted into a mansion where some sort of high priest dressed in red is swinging incense and rapping a staff on the marble floor as lugubrious choral music drones on in the background. The priest is surrounded by a circle of masked women, who, upon his command, doff their cloaks, kneel reverentially for a while longer in their G-strings, and then are sent off one by one. Their sacred mission: to get it on with the male party-goers, all of whom are still wrapped in their own cloaks and whose faces are hidden under studiously grotesque masks.

"You don't belong here," one of these altar girls says as she takes Harford's arm. How does she know? Later in the movie it will be revealed that this woman has met Harford before, when he treated her for a drug overdose at the same party where his wife was dancing with the Hungarian wolf. But how does she recognize him here? In his mask and hood he's indistinguishable from everyone else in the room.

"You are in great danger," she persists as he escorts her down a hallway. When he asks why she is telling him this, she responds, "It doesn't matter," and when he asks who she is she says, "You don't want to know."

Soon this unknown woman is called away on other business, and Harford wanders alone through the many rooms of the mansion, observing an orgy as elaborate and stylized as the mating dance of the Attwater prairie chicken. Begowned men escort slinky naked women down endless hallways, with weary disinterest they observe isolated tableaux of coupling humans and, when their frenzy reaches a crescendo, they engage in joyless ballroom dancing. Danger, indeed, seems to lurk in every corner.

Then Harford is found to be an interloper. Unmasked at an impromptu tribunal, he is ordered to take off his clothes.

"No," cries his helpful escort, dramatically reappearing on the balcony above them. "Take me! I am ready to redeem him!"

She is hauled away, presumably to be killed. Why is she sacrificing her life? All they've asked him to do is remove his clothes at an orgy, which seems not unreasonable.

33000_33059_30024348_eyeswideshut

H arford is allowed to leave, though he is given a stern warning: "If you make any further inquiries, there will be the most dire consequences for you and your family."

Harford makes further inquiries. He travels around the city, obtaining information by flashing his medical license to waitresses and hotel clerks. "I'm a doctor," he announces, as if people are required to speak to him under penalty of law. The "dire consequences" spoken of earlier amount to the following: a brusquely worded note, a rude stare from a stranger, and the apparent confiscation of Harford's carnival mask, which results in a $25 replacement fee.

Who is behind all this mischief? "If I told you their names," says Sydney Pollack, playing a mysterious magnate who befriends Harford, "I don't think you'd sleep so well."

OK, so they're really scary guys. They may even have actually killed the woman at the party, who Harford, flashing his doctor badge again, has discovered lying dead from an overdose in a mortuary drawer. But why would they go to such extreme lengths to cover up their romps in the first place? They don't appear to be doing anything particularly illegal, and with their liturgical solemnity they seem far less a threat to the Republic than, say, a Karen Finley performance piece or happy hour at Hooters. Wouldn't it make more sense just to offer Harford a membership to the haunted mansion club?

"You've been out of your depth the last 24 hours," Pollack's character says. Harford, resigned and weary, returns home, only to discover the missing mask on the bed next to his sleeping wife. Who put it there? That's the question that Kubrick no doubt intended us to ask each other late into the night, just as we once endlessly pondered the meaning of the black monolith in 2001. But 2001 was a mystery, and Eyes Wide Shut, for all its atmospheric high-mindedness, is just a muddle.

Stephen Harrigan's latest novel, Remember Ben Clayton, was published by Knopf in 2011 and recently issued in paperback by Vintage.