Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Written by Stanley Kubrick & Frederic Raphael
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The final film from Stanley Kubrick came twelve years after his previous picture, Full Metal Jacket. The expectations are high, and close friends and family of the director have said he really felt the pressure of making a great film because of the standards he’d set for himself. I never had the privilege of going to a new Kubrick film in the theater, I was eighteen when Eyes Wide Shut was released and hadn’t yet fully developed in my understanding of cinema. From what I read from older film fans & critics, a Kubrick movie was met with humming anticipation. These heightened expectations will inevitably lead to disappointment because they put so much of the viewer’s demands on what the piece of art should be. However, contemporary reevaluations of Eyes Wide Shut have redeemed a beautiful send-off for one of our great masters in the craft.
Dr. Bill and Alice Harford (Tom Cruise & Nicole Kidman) are New York City residents who live comfortably in Manhattan. They attend a Christmas party at the home of one of Bill’s wealthy patients, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). During the party, an older man tries to seduce Alice while Bill attends to a woman having a drug overdose whom Victor slipped upstairs to have sex with. Later that night, the couple put their daughter to bed and smoke a joint, which leads to a heated conversation about sexuality and temptation. Alice reveals that she went to the very edge of going to bed with a stranger she saw in a hotel once and even thinks about the man when she has sex with Bill. Bill is taken aback as he carried the view that it was men who are inherently sexually aggressive, and women are rewarded for indulging men.
Their evening is interrupted by a call that one of Bill’s colleagues has passed away and so he goes over to console the family. This excursion into the night leads to a dreamlike odyssey through the streets of the city. Bill meets a host of odd people and familiar faces, eventually leading him to a party at a manor outside of New York City. The attendants are masked, and everything has an air of the occult, guests participating in anonymous public sexy and orgies with each other. Bill’s paranoia increases after he leaves the party, finding himself unable to trust the world around him and unable to stop imagining his wife with that stranger from years ago.
Eyes Wide Shut was released after Kubrick died, and he never got to edit the final cut of the project. The film was finished as close to his specifications as possible, but we have a Kubrick film, the only one other than Spartacus, where the editing was out of his hands. The picture was marketed and subsequently misinterpreted as an “erotic thriller” by critics leading to a lot of confusion. If you look at the movies that fell into that category in the 1990s, Eyes Wide Shut did not fit that definition and was about much more profound themes than those films. Classifying Kubrick movies to a specific genre is near impossible because he blends so much in a single production or outright defies the genre expectations. I enjoy one critic’s view that 2001 is not science fiction; instead, it’s “science inevitability.” Eyes Wide Shut, therefore, is something an “erotic allegory” with its impressionistic plot structure and themes.
The masks worn at the party are a clue to what Kubrick was saying about sexual relationships in both contemporary societies and over the ages. These are traditional Venetian style masks and have a history of being used in anonymous sexual activities. There is also a strand of Catholicism in the opening ritual when we see when Bill enters the mansion. There’s a blending of elements of the Church and mercantilism of sexuality. The women in the inner circle are blessed by the red-cloaked priest and then exit to chose which person they will engage with. Only the wealthy elite are allowed into this party, so you necessarily have to pay to play. We should also not forget this is the second party we see in the movie, with the first occurring when Bill and Alice go to Victor’s. Later, Victor reveals he was at the masked party, the dark parallel to his own. Masks appear throughout the picture and serve as the main thematic element. When paired with the early argument between Bill & Alice, we can see that Kubrick explores the facades used in society and interpersonal relationships to keep things functional.
Dreams are also a significant element in the work with the final line of the picture: “And no dream is ever…just a dream” spoken by Alice to Bill as he looks to her for advice on what happens next in their marriage. The entire plot grows from Alice’s revelation that she dreams of sex with other men. Once Bill leaves the house, he engages in a series of surreal encounters. The daughter of his dead colleague suddenly kissing Bill and declaring her love without really knowing him. Just happening to run across his old school pal Nick Nightingale at a jazz club where he is performing. Crossing the street only to end up being solicited by a stunningly beautiful prostitute to come back to her place. The bizarre encounter in the costume shop. And then the masked party and its subsequent fallout. During the movie, Kubrick does not hide rear projection and obviously constructed backlot facsimiles of New York City streets. This artifice is intentional because we need to disassociate from the literal and move into a sphere of the psychological. It attributes to the sense of the uncanny that something is off about this whole world.
The whole film is Bill’s Pilgrim’s Progress meditation on marriage, honesty, and sex. By the time he and Alice reunite, they are both shaken to the core. The truth has been laid out clearly before them, but they do not know what to do next. While most of the picture consists of movement, the final scene has both our leads standing still. Bill promises Alice that they are both fully awake now, and we be like this forever to which she responds with a sense of fear. Is being fully transparent and “awake” with even your spouse a preferred state of being, or do we need to recede into dreams from time to time? As with all good Kubrick pictures, we are left with a sense of ambiguity. The filmmaker doesn’t know the answer, but he understands the philosophical importance of asking the question. We are left to contemplate what he asks. Is it better to be in a state of panic yet moving or still in the face of complete, uncompromising truth?