Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) goes down the rabbit hole. "Eyes Wide Shut."

Directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael; based upon the novel “Traumnovelle” by Arthur Schnitzler. Music by Jocelyn Pook. Photographed by Larry Smith. Edited by Nigel Galt. Production designed by Leslie Tompkins, Roy Walker. Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Todd Field, Sky du Mont, Rade Šerbedžija, Vinessa Shaw, Lelee Sobieski, Alan Cumming, Leon Vitali.

There is an early scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut that gives a tantalizing hint of the film’s elegant power. It involves Dr. William Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) as they attend a friend’s lavish cocktail party. First we, open at their apartment. They talk benignly, and kiss their child and give the babysitter the right notes. They’re all smiles, pleasant to each other and pleasant to their host Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). They split off during the course of the party, and Alice eventually finds herself alone, being hit on by a slick Hungarian (Sky du Mont). The scene—the moment, really–that opens up the central mysteries of Eyes Wide Shut comes right here, where Alice very slowly, very definitively, flirts back with her Hungarian friend.

Why? At no point is Alice established to be unhappy, nor is her marriage shown to be troubled. She loves her husband, loves their daughter, and certainly loves the lavish Central Park West penthouse that they call home. And yet Alice dances on the line here, playing a game with herself to see how much she can toy with fire before retreating. She consciously makes the decision to engage him, to stroke his libido, and to bring herself to the knife’s edge of pursuing an affair, and then she withdraws. The whole scene has an elegant, hypnotic pull that implies inevitability, like music. It is only through Alice’s barely managed willpower that she stops herself, and we figure that if she hadn’t retreated when she did, she would have fallen. That’s how powerful the lure of sex is in the world of Alice Harford, and she treats it like a plaything that she knows exactly when to put down.

But that’s just my supposition, because we never truly know what the characters in Eyes Wide Shut are thinking. That’s not an oversight on the part of Kubrick, but instead his pointed strategy to deal with eroticism, by moving into negative space the most powerful aspect of sex: thought. Although Eyes Wide Shut develops into a sexual odyssey for Cruise’s Dr. Harford, we see not that much actual physical sex, because I don’t think the prurient act of love interests Kubrick. I think he’s intrigued by that raw desire that overwhelms intellect and fuels a sexual experience, and he makes his characters opaque on purpose so that their thought process isn’t treated reductively. One of Kubrick’s favored themes was the primal urges that lurk beneath civility, and here he gives equal weight to both so that we can recognize their power.

Kubrick was sometimes accused of being cold, and you can almost see an autobiographical touch within Cruise’s character of Dr. Bill Harford, who is a physician. A brief sequence shows him at work handling a naked body with the necessary restraint, but it points to a deeper problem within Harford: his own uncomfortable grasp on sexuality. True that he is married and a father, and also at the aforementioned party he shamelessly flirts with a couple of all-too-willing rich girls, but this is where Kubrick’s casting of Cruise first comes in handy: with that eager-to-please smile and effortless charisma, we get the sense he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Unlike Alice, who knew how to play the Hungarian until she didn’t want to play anymore, Bill is both clinical and, I want t say–unsophisticated. He engages with Alice a little small talk involving what sex means to the modern man, but his thoughts are pithy and untested.

It is Alice that throws Bill’s world into disarray, however inadvertently. The night after the party they get a little stoned, and she presses him about the two girls he was with, in one of those domestic arguments that begins teasingly and escalates into full-blown accusation. By the end of it, she tells him of one night they were vacationing in Cape Cod when she saw a Naval officer and was filled with lust: “If he wanted me, even if it was only for one night, I was ready to give up everything…And yet it was weird because at the same time, you were dearer to me than ever, and at that moment my love for you was both tender and sad.” Bill, shocked (in a great, wordless bit of acting by Cruise that adds to the scene’s considerable pull), gets a phone call from a patient and retreats into the night.

This opens the central, phantasmagorical portion of Eyes Wide Shut as Bill wanders down New York City streets (sometimes the same streets over and over), in a series of disconnected episodes. Much of the film operates on dream logic, as each encounter that Bill has seems to start innocently but then gradually drift to the same central theme: sex. His house call turns badly when the dead man’s daughter (Marie Richardson) makes a pass at him, almost as if Bill had somehow willed it to happen in retaliation for Alice’s betrayal. Then he encounters homophobic frat boys, a prostitute named Domino (Vinessa Shaw) who offers herself in terms more tender than one might expect, and then a Russian costume shop owner (Rade Šerbedžija) with a Lolita-esque daughter (Lelee Sobieski). Bill also meets an old friend (Todd Field) who plays piano in a jazz band and prys information about a secretive gig he has later that night.

That leads to the most nightmarish and yet oddly beautiful sequence in the entire movie, in which Cruise finds himself at an arcane ritual that transforms into an orgy, where all the participants wear masks and wander in and out of scenes of wretched debauchery, all shot with dreamlike precision that suggests something deep being tapped into. Bill’s own mask makes him look impassive, which comments on Bill’s own passionless approach to sex, made acute by his wife’s revelation. He is a man who effectively cannot share or relate to his spouse’s own passions, and this petrifies him. Throughout this whole series of events (culminating at the orgy) he tries to tempt himself again and again and each time only partially succeeds.

Summarizing the film doesn’t really do it justice, because its success lies more in the direction and the details of the script. Kubrick’s screenplay is nominally based on the novel by Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler, but recalls other inspirations like Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (a nighttime journey through the New York underworld), and also Alice in Wonderland in how it illustrates a reverie that offers at first escape and then ultimately a confrontation of the issues at hand (note Kidman’s character name, after all). And bubbling beneath the entire enterprise is the soul of film noir, which suggests that crime is like a object with its own gravity that pulls innocents toward it. Eyes Wide Shut takes the same approach to sexuality, as Bill steps carefully above an abyss that threatens his marriage and his own sense of self.

And there are physical threats, too, made explicit by the time the following night comes around and Bill follows up on the different encounters from the night before. In a way, the second night’s events almost play like darker B-sides of the earlier sequences, or perhaps more like a dream that builds upon previous dreaming. Bill guiltily hangs up on his patient’s daughter when her husband answers the phone, then learns from the prostitute’s roommate that the girl he was almost with was tested HIV-positive. He searches for his friend the piano player, who is missing, and meets an overly-helpful hotel clerk (Alan Cumming) who is obviously attracted to Bill, and Bill fails to pick up on it. He comes back to the costume shop and suspects something potentially vile has transpired between the smiling faces of the shopowner and the nymphomaniacal daughter. The orgy is not exactly returned to, but Bill does get a disturbing encounter when he travels back to the mansion, and suspects he is being followed.

There is a minor flaw in the final sequences here, and that is that the film finally gives in too much to the conventional elements of paranoia, conspiracies, would-be murders and so on. Given the emotional-yet-ambiguous power of what we have seen previously, it’s curious that Eyes Wide Shut decides to climax with a talky scene that doesn’t exactly tie up loose ends, but still resolves with an oddly minor sense of ambiguity. It works better when taken in concert with the entirety of the third act encounters, which seem to function effectively as a cold smack of reality to contrast with the erotic dreaming of the earlier night. But still, it doesn’t change the fact that the film hasn’t given us enough reason to care what happened to the piano player, at all.

Nevertheless, Eyes Wide Shut does pull itself back together in its final scene, which is one of those movie finales that basically teaches you how to appreciate it (it’s hard to take much away from it on first viewing except for the film’s wickedly delicious punchline). I wouldn’t call the resolution closure necessarily—more like a step in the overall awakening of Dr. Bill Harford. It’s fascinating how skillfully Kubrick allows us to be interested in Bill and Alice’s plight, since by virtue of how the film is constructed, we end up learning precious little about them. Kubrick was never a very sympathetic storyteller, and I think that’s because he related to his characters (or at least most of them) less as fully-formed individuals and more as templates to be expanded upon by each individual audience member. Note the care with which Kubrick’s script downplays the character arcs. Lots of movies have little character development, and they are frequently bad. Eyes Wide Shut, on the other hand, intentionally prompts us by keeping such a thing mostly absent.

If Eyes Wide Shut is indeed “about” anything, I would have to say it is about the different functions we bestow upon sex, which is a biological process that, it should be pointed out, only humans perform sometimes with remorse. Here, Cruise’s character goes on a tour of how different people relate to sex, made all the more potent by how small his own concept of the subject is. We see sex used as recreation, as a weapon, as fulfillment, and also as ritual, business, and a conduit for exploitation. And there is another layer that evokes those for whom sex is simply a front for voyeuristic empowerment: at the time, of course, Kidman and Cruise were married, and so Kubrick effectively uses his stars in order to question the audience for what exactly it wants to see.

To discuss the technical credits of a Stanley Kubrick film feels almost perfunctory, since they are typically peerless. The camerawork (many of them long takes) is impeccable, especially in the way the cinematographer, Larry Smith, using Christmas lights to make the story feel inappropriately warm, and using bright interiors that contrast with wintry blues just outside. Jocelyn Pook’s score is minimalist and creepy, and allows the film to conjur tension out of thin air. Cruise and Kidman’s performances? Well, they are just plain perfect. Cruise, despite his movie-star looks and recent bizarre behavior remains an electric performance in movies because he is one of the few actors who can actually convey thought, and that aids him here especially with a script that is intentionally cagey about what thoughts those might be. Kidman at first seems to be playing to her porcelain strengths, but as the movie progresses she reveals a tenderness that may make Eyes Wide Shut her greatest performance, if not her most extensive (she has maybe twenty-five minutes of screentime).

Stanley Kubrick has arguably been called the greatest American director of all time, and although such debates are slippery, the evidence is persuasive. With a firm hand he navigated multiple genres and delivered definitive works within them, from sci-fi (2001) to satire (Dr. Strangelove) to horror (The Shining), historical drama (Barry Lyndon), Roman epics (Spartacus), war (Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket). That’s not even counting the movies he made where I have no idea what category to put them in (A Clockwork Orange, Lolita). That he was an intelligent man who made intelligent films should not be a rarity, but it was, and still is, and for that alone he would be worthy of celebration. If there is a single strand one could use to tie Kubrick’s disparate body of work together, it would be the hidden instincts in men that rumble beneath vapid conformity. Kubrick was fascinated by society’s inherent contradictions, and liked exploring that hypocrisy through challenging works that we still watch today, religiously. Every single one of them.

Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick’s final film. He died at the age of 70 on March 7, 1999, mere days after he finished editing Eyes Wide Shut. For some, I’m sure that would permanently mark it as little more than a last breath rather than a masterpiece. But Eyes Wide Shut, if it is not a masterpiece, at least looks enough like one to belie any notion it was the work of a dying filmmaker. It is so alive and so inventive that it is clearly the work of a master in his prime. He never really fell out of his prime, he simply increased his ability to make it all look so easy. Like it was all play. Or a beautiful dream.

A+

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5 thoughts on “Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

  1. FassbinderFan November 13, 2011 / 3:51 pm

    Good review but aren’t we forgetting something. As Domino said: “shouldn’t we talk about money?” I think no review of Eyes Wide Shut does the film service if we ignore how capitalism, hidden knowledge, social/government power and desire function and intersect, which seems to be Kubrick’s interest in the film.

    • saberdance November 13, 2011 / 5:35 pm

      It’s a very good point; I noticed that line as well, and there definitely seems to be a throughline here of the events of the narrative being enabled by the secret desires of the wealthy, or perhaps even caused by them. What provokes further study is that, at this point, being honest, I’m trying to determine Kubrick’s ultimate aim with these themes. He obviously has one. I plan to return to this film further down the line.

  2. Alan Nowicki November 14, 2011 / 10:39 am

    Much of this movie is about sex, but as you commented, “we see not that much actual physical sex.” I’ve often wondered if this is similar to what the best Horror directors already know when it comes to monsters and gore. Our minds always make things out to be much worse, or in the sex reference, much better than it actually turns out to be. So much of this movie is what is happening in the mind of these characters, what they think would have happened or might happen in the near future, and reflecting on the possible consequences of those impulses. Even the sex that is seen, is viewed as dreamlike or as if in a fantasy. Alice’s encounter with the Navy man, are those her thoughts, or her husband’s. And depending on which, do they have a different emotion attached? Or the orgy, that seems more like a fantasy than reality. As you stated, I’ve often viewed this as an adult “Alice in Wonderland.”

    I think the last act is a little off course from the rest of the piece, and drags a bit. But even with that said, I’ve always wondered what this couple is doing a year later from when the film ends. I like that it’s one of those great “thinking” films without giving any answers. It’s more of a personal reflects to your own, and societies, thoughts on sex. This movie is also a perfect example of why the film industry needs an NC-17 rating, without our culture making this rating taboo. It’s somewhat sad to think it took almost a decade for the uncensored version to appear in the U.S., yet “movies” of people blowing up or mutilating bodies are in at least one weekly release.

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