Upon its release in 1999, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut promptly took its place alongside Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Antonioni’s L’Avventura, at least half of David Lynch’s entire oeuvre, and Kurosawa’s Dreams as one of the cinema’s great phantasms. If, upon seeing it, you’ve any sense of it sporting a traditional story--even a derailed or dull one--then, if you will pardon this writer for seeming pedantic or snobby, your eyes are certainly not sharp enough. Hey, this is a common reaction amongst filmgoers first seeing Kubrick’s thought-provoking works; for most viewers, particularly in this age of spoon-fed pabulum disguised as entertainment, the director’s pictures are boldly off-putting, and even infuriating (the teems of analytically-challenged critics and dissatisfied audiences exiting Eyes Wide Shut definitely prove this).
But before or after your first look at this uniquely massive art film, be informed that, as with previous Kubrick movies, Eyes Wide Shut requires repeated once-overs to be mined fully. Like many of his pictures, it leaves us in a state of groggy confusion, as if we’ve just been drugged and kidnapped. Now, I’m sadly aware that’s not what most people go to the movies for these days (it ain’t the ‘60s anymore), so in response to the tired, baffled reactions to Kubrick’s final masterwork, I say this: Eyes Wide Shut is so accomplished, so rich with delightful visual and intellectual detail that, even if you don’t think it’s much when you first see it, you too will be praising it years down the line. History bears this out; Kubrick’s movies have always garnered mixed reviews on their release, and have always been regarded as works of genius once they’ve been given a while to breathe.
Our first glimpse of the film immediately yields a Kubrick trademark: the use of classical music as score, in this case the mellifluous clarinet spelling out the Second Waltz from Dimitri Shastakovich’s “Jazz Suite.” Just as Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz” did for the space travel sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the music bathes us with a savvy intermingling of the New World (jazz that perfectly recalls modern-day New York, where the film is set) and the Old World (the Viennese waltz--the screenplay’s source material, Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Traumnovelle, is set in 19th Century Vienna, a world also evoked in the film’s ornate set designs). Bold block letters announce the participation of Kubrick, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, interrupted only by an alluring angle on Kidman disrobing, revealing her sculpted naked figure to the camera (mirroring the ardent soul-baring to come). And so, over the next 2 hours and 39 minutes, the viewer is put into an intense trance cooked up by Kubrick with a knowing eye cocked toward the outlandishly prurient expectations audiences held for this tale of sexual jealousy and marital strength.
Bill and Alice Harford (Cruise and Kidman) are an attractive, seemingly happy couple leading a too-charmed upper-crust lifestyle in Manhattan. He’s a vain, spoiled yet still basically good doctor who adores his wife and their seven year-old daughter, Helena, while Alice is an observant, outspoken, but somewhat bored art dealer pleasantly going about her wifely duties. As the film begins, they’re venturing out to a fancy-pants Christmas party at the home of one of Bill’s patients, Victor Ziegler (nicely underplayed by actor-turned-director-turned-actor-again Sydney Pollack). After dancing dispassionately together, the Harfords mingle solo and savor flirting with various bluebloods (including a vampiric Sky Dumont as Kidman's horny, well-spoken dance partner). Bill does some flirting of his own with two airhead models who promise to take him "where the rainbow ends." And then he's called up to help Victor out of a particularly sticky jam that leaves all concerned shaken. Yet, fearing the consequences of extramarital couplings, Bill and Alice remain loyal to one another, even making love at home later in front of a crazed mirror (the film's most famous image, used as its marketing ploy).
The next evening, after dipping into their pot stash, husband and wife have an intense bedside argument about jealousy and the differences between male and female sexuality. Offended by Bill’s vapid, uninformed opinions on feminine desires, Alice harshly endeavors to set him straight by confessing, with a wistful smile, a brief but powerful flirtation she enjoyed with an alluring naval officer while they were once on vacation. “At that moment,” she says, “even just for one night, I was willing to give up everything--you, Helena, my whole fucking future--for him. And yet, it was weird because you were dearer to me than ever.” And with this, a seething Bill, displaying the famed Kubrickian downward stare of a man in distress, has his idealistic view of their marriage forever shattered.
Jarringly, Bill gets a call and prophetically says he has to “show his face” at the home of a newly dead patient. Fervently wrestling with the thought of Alice desiring another man, Bill traverses the New York streets, tortured by smutty black-and-white visions of the naval officer ravishing his passionate wife. He arrives at the deceased patient’s home and comforts the dead man’s daughter (an excellent Marie Richardson), who has a surprising confession for her father’s doctor, one that throws open the floodgates of Bill's sexual desire.
Thus begins his vengeful, maze-like journey through the winding streets of Greenwich Village, with Bill following whiffs of pulchritude that lead him to a myriad of locales: the apartment of a charming prostitute (Vinessa Shaw, who asks Bill “Would you like to come inside with me?” which he seems to misunderstand as being "of me”); a piano bar where Bill’s sleazoid medical school buddy Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) works as a pianist--a clever Kubrick pun--while dabbling in NYC’s sexual underground; a costume shop where a creepy Eastern European (Rade Sherbadgia) has an even creepier rapport with his Lolita-esque daughter (Leelee Sobieski); and a great mansion where a ripe, even slightly comical, masked ball (another pun) takes place. Learning something essential about himself and his relationship with Alice at each of these stops, Bill opens up during the film’s climactic hour to eventual self-discovery, resulting not in the joy of sex, but in the fear of death, which are certainly linked in Arthur Schnitzler’s Freud-steeped world.
Eyes Wide Shut is easily Kubrick’s most significant work since 2001, a film with which it shares some deeply embedded similarities. It tells of mankind’s journey, but via a genre galaxies away from science fiction: the love story. Like 2001, it focuses on human failings, but remains optimistic that we’ll graduate to higher beings if we put forth an effort. It uses not a journey to Jupiter as its backdrop, but a journey within, through the soul’s deepest fears and desires, to explore our primeval lusts. Eyes Wide Shut, like 2001, is a lyrically hallucinatory morality tale told in a dense, puzzling, non-condescending style that’ll leave many frustrated but surreptitiously intrigued.
In my reading of this mesmerizing film--and I believe each viewer will extract something unique--it seems that the lucid “real world” segments consist only of the opening half-hour (up to where Bill gets the phone call after his wife’s confession) and the final ten minutes. These lucid portions are quickly edited and have an effusive life force that the rest of film doesn’t have. The middle two hours of Eyes Wide Shut--where Bill wanders around New York, through slowly-paced scenes packed into a strangely condensed time period, with long takes and lapses in logic galore--are a literal retelling of a fever dream suffered by a once-arrogant man whose world is, for a time, poisoned with jealously and longing, and by his own silly notions of what sexual freedom really is. Yes, almost the entire movie (in my mind) is a dream. Not having read Schnitzler’s novel, I can’t point to it for support, except to say that its English title is Dream Story. But I can note the movie’s poetic title, an accurate description of the REM state. Even so, Leon Vatali, Kubrick's longtime assistant and the actor that portrayed both the scheming Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon and the demanding Red Cloak in Eyes Wide Shut's orgy sequence, has brushed off the notion that Eyes Wide Shut is a dream film; it's not something that his one-time boss wanted to own up to. Yeah, okay...but this doesn't convince me. I'm speaking to what Kubrick REALLY meant to say, not to what he SAID he meant to say. Committed artists often do not know what exactly they are getting at in their works; it seems to me that Kubrick perhaps lost conscious sight of his subject matter, after living with it for three decades.
Other clues supporting my just opinion? The painterly use of dabs of hazy colored light--a Kubrick mainstay bespeaking the spectral nature of all his films, but used to particularly beautiful effect here by cameraman Larry Smith. Also, the odd quality of his New York street sets, constructed on the backlots of London’s Pinewood Studios and accurate to every detail--even down to the imported trash filling the waste baskets--yet dotted with surreal touches: neon signs illustrating the link between food and sex (“DINER” and “EROS” battle it out as Bill bargains with the Russian costume dealer); a surplus of shops with suggestive monikers (a lingerie emporium called “A Hint of Lace,” a flower store called “Nipped in the Bud,” the “Verona Restaurant,” referencing the hometown of Romeo and Juliet) and a plethora of interiors swathed in passionate shades of red, purple, and pink (praise, too, to production designers Les Tompkins and Roy Walker).
As always, Kubrick’s famous tracking shots lend their own fantasy elements to the movie as they follow Bill down city corridors to a dollop of self-discovery that is at once destructive and regenerative (think of the end of 2001: Dave Bowman sees his body spiral into old age while trapped in that proto-Victorian holding cell, and then, by virtue of his accumulated self-knowledge, sees himself and mankind reborn into the Nietzschen Superman; the scene is mirrored in the sequence with the dead old man in the first third of Eyes Wide Shut). And the biggest clue toward the notion that most of Eyes Wide Shut is a dream sequence? It's simply the rambling, surreal quality of its ever-so subtle plotline.
In a Kubrick movie, everything, even the smallest details, means something--that’s why he spent so much time on his films (this one took 54 weeks to shoot, not to mention two decades of script development with his co-writer, the great but ultimately baffled Frederic Rafael, who penned two other classic screenplays about married life, Darling and Two for the Road, and went on to write a damning portrayal of his relationship with Kubrick in a memoir called Eyes Wide Open--the polar opposite of Full Metal Jacket co-scripter Michael Herr's stressed but adoring book Kubrick).
Kubrick doesn’t make the majority of Eyes Wide Shut languorous and lolling just because he sadistically wants to bore the audience; he wants viewers to feel as if they are in a waking REM stage, and he aptly succeeds. If viewers are perplexed by this film, it’s because dreams themselves are perplexing--that is, until one reviews them in order to learn something about the dreamer (note that Arthur Schnitzler was a close personal friend of dream doctor Sigmund Freud). Eyes Wide Shut acts as a waking night-sweat for the audiences, and thus makes it aware of the similar nature of movies themselves; it’s a film about watching films. Kubrick’s final work also forces us to do what he always wanted viewers to do with his films: interpret for ourselves and stop coming to him for the answers. He makes watching movies into a participatory, rather than passive, activity. It's 3D in extrema.
Ultimately, by the time Bill breaks down crying to his wife, offering to tell her of his own sordid (and, I think, imagined) foray into infidelity, and then with the absolutely heartrending final exchange between the couple (in a freakin' toy store, of all places,with the product of their most impassioned sex--their daughter--in tow), we realize that the film is also about total trust in and honesty with the person one chooses to be one’s spouse, and how those qualities can so improve a relationship that doors are opened to new planes of reality. Kubrick’s final work is his most optimistic, though it gets there by way of society’s dregs (this, too, it shares with 2001). Unusually for this director--whose favorite theme was often man’s inhumanity to man--Eyes Wide Shut professes a faith in an unfailingly truthful relationship between two people who love each other, flaws, dreams, and all.
This is supported by the fact that the director spent the final years of his life in intimate quarters with Cruise and Kidman, a famous wedded couple who, up until that time, had withstood storms that destroyed similar celebrity marriages. Having had a stimulating 41-year marriage with his own wife, Christiane, Kubrick must’ve wanted to explore the dynamics of a real marriage on-screen, but was unable to do so because of his perfectionist belief that such a relationship couldn’t be plumbed with actors merely portraying spouses. He needed a real-life acting couple, and one willing to take a long look at the most unsettling aspects of their own union.
That Cruise and Kidman were that (ultimately doomed) couple will speak eternally to their worth as actors; if they hadn’t earned my full admiration with fine showings in Born on the Fourth of July and To Die For, respectively, then they certainly have it now. Kidman, in particular, is forceful as Alice. Though her character disappears for a good portion of the movie, her performance is so strong, her manner so sure and honesty so piercing, it’s easy to see how Bill has become obsessed with his wife. Hers is the ultimate act of love--the revelation of her inner-self, which triggers the revelation of her spouse’s inner-self, which will lead to their true, hopefully ultimate success as a couple. Kidman makes us root for Alice, the most complete female character in Kubrick’s repertoire. Cruise, meanwhile, is also bravely revelatory in the way he lets his director toy with his famed, ultra-cocky screen persona (even letting the director make jokes about his rumored homosexuality--"Exit only, baby" yell those thugs that grab their asses on the street--and his off-screen heroism, via the talk with the flirty airheads at the beginning of the film). In many of his blockbusters, Cruise’s characters appear unshakable. But his Bill Harford is a walking corpse, a man who’s never known who he truly is. As his self-discoveries pile atop one another, whether in dreams or in reality, he grimaces and tenses as if his guts are being skewered with hot needles (Cruise's scene in the morgue, with woman on the slab who may have sacrificed herself for him, is particularly overwhelming). His is a remarkable performance in a movie brimming with remarkable assets (just a few more: Jocelyn Pook’s eerie original score and the carefully selected source music commenting on each scene; Alan Cumming’s crackling turn as a bubbly gay hotel clerk; Christiane Kubrick’s and Katherina Kubrick Hobbs’ pastoral paintings; the strangely timeless fashions by Marit Allen). And, here, I must mention how I enjoy such small, sly touches as seeing Bill meet the prostitute in front of a punny key and lock shop; or reading the headlines “Lucky to Be Alive” and “Cool as Ice” on opposite sides of the New York Post Bill purchases in a charged moment; or the pinned-up ad for a Keith Haring painting outside the apartment of a woman who's contracted AIDS (the same disease that killed Haring--by the way, this is the kind of detail you won't be able to see on the small screen); or Harford's dead elderly patient lying in a bed that looks just like the one in which Dave Bowman died in 2001. This sort of list, when it comes to Eyes Wide Shut, could go on and on.
In the end, the three-year wait for Eyes Wide Shut--from its announcement to its release--was worth it, because it became an inextricable part of this moviegoing experience--in fact, our wait for Cruise and Kidman to get it on for our masturbatory pleasure is the focus of the movie’s very final cosmic joke--one that’s played on the audience and no doubt leaves them angry (it’s the biggest movie ever about blue balls, because Cruise and Kidman never really get to have sex with ANYONE on screen). For that reason, the secrecy that perhaps, even a decade after its release, still surrounds it becomes indispensable for the viewer’s enjoyment. You wait through the entire movie for all the one-time wild internet rumors to come true--Cruise in drag, vomiting dope fiends, hardcore porn, and the like--and then they don’t. Even in this Age of Information, in this entertainment environment cluttered by pointless pre-release buzz, Kubrick has the last gigantic laugh by successfully skirting any notions that people may have thought they had about his film. He escaped the buzz, like the magician he is. Eyes Wide Shut will always remain be controversial with most moviegoers--many of them used to knowing exactly what’s going to happen in a picture perhaps even weeks before it’s released--because, as with 2001, they will exit seeing the picture, at home or in the theater, with one word on their minds: “Huh? I don't get it.” And then they will wonder...
And that, I think, is delectible, because people won’t forget about Eyes Wide Shut immediately like so many disposable movies of the day. They will be trying to suss it out for weeks, months, years. Eyes Wide Shut, as do most Kubrick films, will haunt those who long to think, and those who find thinking discomforting will still always recall the piece as a completely singular filmgoing experience on which they at least occasionally ruminate, either angrily or curiously. Either way, all will return to it, again and again, greatly or slightly, in a nagging attempt to mine its worth. This is what the best movies are all about. Finally, in conclusion, remember: it was that treasured, womanizing American Benjamin Franklin who once said: "Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, and half shut afterwards."