Eyes Wide Shut (1999, Stanley Kubrick)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this one, there’s probably some use in making a general comment here about Stanley Kubrick’s later films, starting with A Clockwork Orange. The premise is, either you give yourself up to the movie in the first ten minutes or so, buying into the out-there and wildly specialized structure and worldview of the given film, or you don’t. These are some of the best movies ever made if you accept their central conceits, in many ways because they’re so eccentric. Assuming you’re all right with that, outside of Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut is Kubrick’s best post-1960s film. It’s a haunting, shockingly lively career summary full of knowing, smirking humor and moments teetering on the edge of sanity, all for the sake of a few points about the nature of romantic commitment. The movie and everything in it is one big joke. And it works, exuding dread, sex, horror, but also — in a rarity for the director — pure charm.
Inevitably, the film cannot be addressed without acknowledging Kubrick’s death mere days after presenting the completed project to Warner Bros. He was only 70, and by all accounts no one expected him to be gone so soon. A few months later, the pattern in place for Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket held fast for Eyes Wide Shut. Nearly universally regarded as a disappointment, starring one of Hollywood’s most divisive performers (Tom Cruise as Bill), and cursed by one of the worst trailers ever assigned to a major release, the movie seemed to invite a taunting and to taint the world’s vision of Kubrick as a maverick who could do no wrong. Of course, a reappraisal in a decade or two was inevitable, but the difference now was that the director wasn’t alive to give a few cautious interviews and plant doubt in the minds of the detractors. As a result, watching the movie today is an unexpected and rich joy, Kubrick toying with us sixteen years past his death.
Eyes Wide Shut is a film about the miraculousness, confusion and ambivalence of human love, and a challenge to every concrete black and white portrait of same. It’s easy to connect the dots to the kind of movies that inspired Kubrick to make this: Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance, the romantic comedies and dramas of Woody Allen, especially Husbands and Wives, and even the silent comedians whose pantomime exploits are an undeniable line of reference for Tom Cruise’s bewildered, mildly cuckolded doctor. The very plotline of Eyes Wide Shut is suggestive of Chaplin’s Tramp theatrics: After his wife confesses to a lurid fantasy about a man she enjoyed from a mostly comfortable distance with a tinge of danger, he the aloof gynecologist husband, who’s never been insecure enough to feel jealous, attempts to show her up or prove himself by going out and getting laid, but every attempt to do so ends in embarrassing failure or outright disaster. The most elaborate sends him to the secret meeting of an upper-class sex cult, where people in masks enjoy orgies and other illicit encounters. Cruise’s character, gawking all the while through all the temptations and frustrations, touches the void and comes out alive, but as his wife says, “We are awake now.”
Cruise and Kidman’s characters clearly love and care for one another, and his devotion to her is beyond question even as he scans a weirdly empty New York City (simulated in the UK save a few second-unit shots) for something to embed his cock into. But by its nature, marriage is constantly assaulted from the outside — Kidman’s flirtatious Alice wants to make her husband uncomfortable but also give him something to protect, something he knows is worth the trouble even as she hurts him. Kubrick investigates marriage with typical good humor and oppressive terror; it is not by accident that the clearest precedent in his filmography is the only horror film he made, The Shining. While the steely-eyed commentary on jealousy and sexual mores is a firmly conventional pursuit, as usual Kubrick only uses his actual premise as a groundwork to create another surreal, unnerving universe of strange characters and stranger ideas. Much as Barry Lyndon subverts the stuffy universe it inhabits so completely as to be almost malicious, Eyes Wide Shut regularly mocks its everyman lead as much as it sympathizes with her, and plunges him into the depths of confusion by turning his all-too-real world (the HIV victim, the overdose, the aborted threesome, the child at home) into an alien universe. Finally, what may have surprised Kubrick’s detractors the most is the infallible optimism here; they may have been tempted to assume that marriage and love are this film’s HAL 9000. In fact, the film — though it certainly calls monogamous pretenses into question — is unmistakably pro-human; HAL is in the Freemasonish cults it attacks, the dangerous elements of the sometimes beautiful world outside the marital cocoon.
Of course, this interpretation is rather too literal for a movie that is so whimsical and otherworldly, as befits a film that so vividly examines fantasy and obsession, mental and physical. More than anything, it’s Alice through the looking glass as Cruise is left hanging on for dear life to the world he knows, surrounded by danger; his story becomes fairy tale (it does not merely resemble one). Love is a life or death problem, there is a damsel in distress, and evil is present and tantalizing. Kubrick’s connection of these far-out ideas to the gritty New York landscape is thorough, provocative, and nothing short of brilliant. The middle section of Eyes Wide Shut could indeed be his greatest cinematic achievement, and the entire later half is perhaps the greatest example of his storytelling genius, as one by one the illusions are shown to be “real,” in the film’s world. Yet it isn’t possible that what seemed to happen actually did… is it?
Eyes Wide Shut is also, like Psycho, a Christmas film: the first thing we see at every location is a decked-out tree, and the heart-stoppingly lovely final scene takes place as the couple takes their daughter on a seasonal shopping trip. At that point, after a sleepless night of confession following Alice’s climactic discovery of Bill’s mask from the orgy, the thesis is revealed of marriage not as a solid-as-a-rock set-in-stone familial existence but as a constantly evolving, reactive state of being the two must share. They must bond over the hardships and, yes, “fuck.”
Quite unsurprisingly, Kubrick’s visual sense is flawless throughout the movie, which allows him to play with the warmest and most domesticated palette of emotions he’d offered since Lolita — and certainly a stark contrast to this film’s distressingly dark predecessors, Full Metal Jacket and The Shining. Bill’s home and work environment appear the picture of affluence, comfort, routine sustainability — outside of it, at parties and hookers’ apartments and the wet streets, lie the decadent and unfamiliar. A simple idea, perhaps, but one that affords innumerable opportunities for ravishing images and of course the well-loved Kubrick motifs: the crucial scenes in bathrooms, the machination of adult passions and relationships, the strange foreboding of familiar atmospherics. These typical elements are masterfully integrated here, and it seems the perfect story for the director to tell; it feels uncannily like a filmed dream, particularly during the metaphorically loaded night orgy sequence that devolves gradually into an elegantly scary fantasy of sacrifice, fear, secrecy, “things we’re all too young to know.” This middle section and its aftermath, so simultaneously devoted to comic absurdity (the wait at the mansion’s gates for the creepy anonymous rebuffing note to arrive, the wonderfully oddball insistence of yuppie Cruise to throw money at every situation), surrealism, and terror, are as ideal an application for Kubrick’s sensibilities as he ever devised in his career. You can also recognize him through the musical repetition and the careful pacing, two hallmarks of nearly all of his films; the use of constantly looping music and chants reaches all the way back to Dr. Strangelove, here specifically a Romanian chant played backward and a frighteningly stark piano trill.
As in The Shining, claustrophobia is key to the film’s higher functions, particularly at he beginning. Many tracking shots, story points, and even a puzzling jump cut during a two-shot recall the 1980 classic directly. But in its final minutes, Eyes Wide Shut goes more than a couple of steps farther than The Shining to define the ultimate redemption of Kubrick’s Alpha Male. That isn’t to say that a corresponding finale would have worked properly in The Shining… and herein lies perhaps the most interesting aspect of Eyes Wide Shut: Jack Nicholson is far too charismatic to have been able to participate in what Kubrick does here, robbing his protagonist of comfort and complacency while quietly allowing him his (neutered or liberated?) individuality — and more importantly, his participation in a strong but consciously not indestructible bond.
Eyes Wide Shut won’t change your opinion of Tom Cruise. He isn’t a good actor. He is good at playing villains, as proven in Magnolia and Collateral, and deadbeats, as in War of the Worlds. He is bad at most everything else. But as with Ryan O’Neal in Barry Lyndon, the inherent ridiculousness of Cruise as a serious actor is a big part of what sells the movie. Kubrick uses Cruise brilliantly; the actor gawks and gapes and stumbles through his situation with his forcibly casual smirk, always the man who thinks he understands what’s happening and rarely does. The match couldn’t be more perfect: Cruise may well be the only person who could play this role properly (other actors considered were Steve Martin and Woody Allen), the perfect representation of the nowhere man who suddenly finds a broader and stranger world but hasn’t the slightest idea what to do about it and fucks everything up when he attempts to learn. It’s a terrible performance, and yet a great one.
All this time devoted to Cruise shortchanges Nicole Kidman, which is inevitable if only because Kidman is not in the film nearly as much and because she is almost always excellent. Kidman is one of the best Hollywood performers working today, and this is among her greatest work: her monologue about the marine she wanted to fuck — the moment that sets the ball rolling, so to speak — is a peerless bit of movie acting matched only in the Kubrick backlog by Peter Sellers’ and George C. Scott’s legendary turns in Dr. Strangelove (and Sellers and Shelley Winters in Lolita). It’s equally important that Kidman alone provides the contrast for the alluring but horrific images all over the rest of the film. She is the movie’s frame of reference for beauty, its solace from evil, its one sampling of unconditional hope and love. The nudity is crucial (she doesn’t use body doubles; nude scenes can be good or bad, but hers in this film feel indispensable for the way her fragile figure in its manner is as intimidating as a loaded machine gun) but hardly the most notable proof: Everything you need to know about Kidman the actress and Kubrick the director is there in the last five seconds of the movie, a moment of unapologetic warmth and beauty and menace that more than appropriately sends off the filmmaker, forty-six years after Fear and Desire.
The hysterical, sad, tragic setpieces surrounding the central odyssey of the film give it a chance to summarize the breadth of the director’s career up to now — Sydney Pollack’s privileged macho, the costume shop owner’s irreverence toward his daughter’s sexuality, the heartbreaking moment when a kind prostitute turns out to be HIV-positive, the bleary-eyed all-night conversation between husband and wife at the finale. It’s in these injections of warmth, not the riveting cloak-and-dagger stuff that populates the central part of the film and leads to its climax, that Kubrick reveals more of his true self than ever before.
Even putting aside for just a moment the comments on marriage, lust, monogamy, and male and female libido, Eyes Wide Shut stands with Rear Window as one of the greatest and most apt (and chilling) comments on voyeurism in film history. Kubrick fully exploits the potential in the idea of mass fucking with masks on, and of the horrifying idea that some of those you’re observing recognize you… and that you do not belong. Not since Raymond Burr looked squarely into the lens of James Stewart’s camera out into the audience has the psychology of viewership been so thrillingly, ominously challenged, implicating all of us as we flock to the movies to watch our fave celeb couple (at the time) have sex, or at least talk about having sex. For all this confrontational behavior, Kubrick seeks to convince us that it’s all part of being human, that we don’t need an excuse to think of these things, that we too might open our eyes and accept the majesty and the terror and even sense the beauty in the mundane, as we are asked to for the film. It’s not in the sense that it has a lot of nudity and sex that Eyes Wide Shut presents film watching as a thoroughly sensual experience; it’s in the way it reaches inside and plays with us, implicating and teasing and suggesting. Kubrick knew us all at least as well as we know ourselves. I’m not even sure he needed to make another movie after this one.