Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael inspired by the novel by Arthur Schnitzler.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Dr. William Harford), Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford), Sydney Pollack (Victor Ziegler), Marie Richardson (Marion), Rade Serbedzija (Milich), Todd Field (Nick Nightingale), Vinessa Shaw (Domino), Sky du Mont (Sandor Szavost), Fay Masterson (Sally), Leelee Sobieski (Milich's Daughter), Thomas Gibson (Carl), Madison Eginton (Helena Harford), Julienne Davis (Mandy), Gary Goba (Naval Officer), Alan Cumming (Desk Clerk), Leon Vitali (Red Cloak).
Eyes Wide Shut is the only Kubrick film I was old enough to see – and really to be aware of – when it first came out. Of course, Kubrick died shortly after finishing the film, which only fed the anticipation of the movie. There were all sorts of crazy rumors surrounding the film – by the lead press you would almost assume that Kubrick had pretty much made a porno with perhaps the most famous couple in Hollywood at the time – Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Then people actually saw the film – and I think the reaction was more confusion than anything else. Some of the reviews were great – some were horrible – but I think many people didn’t quite know what to make the film on the first viewing. As the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (which I will review next) makes clear, this was pretty much par for the course for a Kubrick film – pretty much everyone since Lolita had the same reaction, before slowly the opinion on the film started to evolve over the years – most being considered masterpieces many. I’m not sure Eyes Wide Shut has quite undergone that transformation among many as of yet – but I do not doubt that eventually it will get there. I saw the film three, perhaps four times in theaters – and quite a few times on VHS and DVD over the next few years – but it’s probably been six or seven years since I had a look at the film. I loved it each time I saw it – but I’m not sure I could explain it at the time. This is a mysterious film in many ways – the Kubrick film it most reminds me of is, strangely, The Shining – as both films are rather ambiguous, could lead to multiple interpretations, and have parts that arguably take place only in the head of the main character. The film has a dreamlike quality to it – something I find myself admiring more and more in films as the years go by. Watching it this time – a little older, a little closer in terms of age to the main characters, and closer to the spot they are in life (married, kids) – I think I loved it even more this time than ever before. It truly is the final masterpiece of Kubrick’s career.
Bill Harford (Cruise) is a character who in some ways reminded me of Barry Lyndon – both men are passive in many ways, and have things happen to them. The difference is that Barry is a character who tries desperately to fit in – and destroys himself attempting to do something he cannot, and Bill is a man who when the film opens thinks he has everything figured out – the beautiful wife, the pretty young daughter, the thriving medical practice, the right friends – but is thrown for a loop when his wife, Alice (Kidman) tells him something that he didn’t imagine was possible. When we first meet them, they are preparing to go to a party held by Victor (Sydney Pollack) – a rich patient and friend of Bill’s. At the party, the pair separate – Kidman gets drunk and flirts with an older Hungarian man, leading him on a little bit, playing with him before she backs off. Bill flirts with two beautiful, younger models – before he’s called away to help Victor – who has trouble with a younger woman himself – one who has OD’ed in his bathroom.
It is these two flirtations – the one between Alice and the older man, and Bill and the models – who set the rest of the film in motion. Alice wants to talk about it – and Bill says something rather stupid things – about how men talk to beautiful women because they want to sleep with them, but sex is something different for women – it’s more about safety and security – commitment if you will. This is when Alice throws Bill for a loop – confessing a fantasy she had the previous year when she saw a Naval Officer at the hotel they were staying at – where she said that she was ready to throw everything away if only he had wanted her – even if it was only for one night. An argument ensures – but before it can really get going, Bill is called away – a patient of his has died, and he has to go to his apartment.
So Bill heads off into the New York night, with visions of his wife and the Naval Officer having sex (which they never did) in his head. It’s somewhere around here, that I think the movie starts to segue between fantasy and reality. It really happens after Bill arrives at the apartment of the dead man, and talks to his daughter – who he barely knows – in the same room as the body. At first, their conversation is rather mundane – the type of small talk you expect between two people who don’t know each other well, but are forced to exchange pleasantries for a few minutes. And then things take a change – when the woman, Marion (Marie Richardson) tells Bill about her fiancé Carl (Thomas Gibson) – and then breaks down in tears, telling Bill she cannot marry Carl, and move to Michigan – because she is in love with Bill – and even if they cannot be together, she needs to be near him.
This conversation doesn’t make a lot of sense. Would this really be the time Marion would confess her love to Bill – with the body of dead father in the same room? But what I noticed this time through, which had not registered before, is that Marion looks a little like Kidman – she wears her hair in much the same way. (For that matter, Carl, when we meet him later in that scene, is almost a clone of Bill – same haircut, same manner). What Marion says is much like what Alice had said about the naval officer – that she would ruin her life for one night with him.
Marion is the first, but is hardly the last, person who will respond to Cruise sexually almost immediately. From that point on, pretty much every interaction Cruise has for the rest of the night is sexual. The frat boys who he meets on the street, and accuse him of being a “fag”, the prostitute Domino (Vinessa Shaw), who he meets, and goes to her apartment – although nothing happens, and their interaction is much more tender, almost sweet, than we expect. The costume shop he visits – where the look the daughter (Leelee Sobieski) gives him is reminiscent of Lolita. Eventually, Bill makes his way to a bar where his friend Nick (Todd Field) –who he met for the first time in years at Victor’s party – who tells him about the wild party he has been hired to play at later than night. It is this party – which Bill gets the details from Nick – which sets up the most infamous scene in the film.
Cruise arrives – wearing a costume, like Nick told him to – at a huge mansion out somewhere in the country. He is escorted in, and witnesses a strange ritual – everyone is wearing masks, but the women there are wearing pretty much only masks. A ritual takes place – a woman leaves the circle a picks up Bill – and immediately tells him he has to leave – he doesn’t belong there, and he will be found out. Bill doesn’t listen – and walks through the house during the orgy. We can now, finally, see the version Kubrick intended – unedited, and more graphic, but hardly pornographic. The version we saw in theaters in 1999 had objects or people digitally added to cover some of the more graphic thrusting (again, it is hardly graphic – but more graphic than the MPAA liked presumably). The sex we see is hardly erotic – it is mechanical and emotionless – made more so by the fact that everyone is wearing masks, so we cannot see any faces and Kubrick uses music to mask all the sounds of sex. Bill is, of course, found out – and thrown out, but only after the woman who picked him up agrees to sacrifice herself for him – and is warned not to tell anyone, anything about what he saw – and not to try and figure out anything about it.
This is about the first half – a little more, but not much – of the film. The rest of the film is Bill not taking the advice he was given when he was thrown out of the orgy, and trying to figure out what happened anyway – something made harder by the fact that Nick has disappeared, and the body of a woman, who he thinks may have been the one who saved her, was found in a hotel – dead of an apparent drug overdose.
The film operates more on dream logic than anything else. Some complained that Kubrick’s New York doesn’t resemble the real New York – the streets are different, too deserted – which is partly explained by the fact that Kubrick, of course, didn’t actually shoot the film in New York – but in London. To me, this is beside the point. This isn’t New York after all – but the New York in the dream world of the film. I’ve always thought that only part of the film actually happens, and part of it is only in the mind – or the dreams (which is the same thing, really) – of Bill. But Kubrick doesn’t do anything to let the audience know what is what – much like he did in The Shining. The film eventually does explain everything – as Victor gives Bill an explanation – but that seems a little too convenient – too pat, too neat. He gives the explanation the audience is looking for – but doesn’t necessarily wrap things up as neatly as most movies would.
What the film is ultimately about is commitment, fidelity and marriage. This is a movie about a married couple, one of whom thought he had a perfect marriage, the other who knew the truth – who still find a way, in the end, to stay together. To Kubrick, commitment and fidelity is a choice – and Bill’s journey is to see what else could be out there should he stray from his marriage. It is a scary world – and so he retreats back into the comfort of his marriage. In a way, he has become the typical “woman” he described to Alice earlier in the film.
The performances in the movie are excellent. Cruise has never been this passive in a movie before – he’s plays Bill as a man who is constantly in over his head, who is at the mercy of the other characters who are the ones who really drive the plot. He heads out into New York twice – once in the night, and once in the day, and the two are different, yet equally disturbing to him. Kidman, although her role is far smaller than Cruise’s – is even better. She really drives the plot – from her flirting, to her confrontation with Cruise where she admits her desires, to the final scene – which is brilliantly played by Kidman, with one of the best final lines (really, a word) in cinema history.
Eyes Wide Shut, like all of Kubrick’s best films is still in many ways a mystery to me. Kubrick’s intentions are always somewhat mysterious – and perhaps never more so than here. But each time I watch the film, the better I think it gets – the more insightful it is into the realities of marriage. Bill and Alice may not have a healthy marriage at the beginning – but they may well have one by the end. In many ways, Eyes Wide Shut is the most hopeful film of Kubrick’s career. By the end, Bill has finally realized what his marriage really is – and only then can he, and Alice, really move forward.