The New Cult Canon: Eyes Wide Shut

“The important thing is, we’re awake now, and hopefully for a long time to come.” —Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is a movie out of time—or to put it another way, it’s timeless. It was released in the middle of 1999’s summer-movie season, preceded by Wild Wild West and American Pie, and followed the next week by an abysmal remake of The Haunting. In retrospect, it seems absurd that Kubrick’s enigmatic final film could be a part of blockbuster season, even though it starred Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who at the time were Hollywood’s biggest power couple. But it’s a good example of what happens when films of genuine ambition and artistry are caught up in the swells of studio mass marketing and hype. (See also: Brokeback Mountain, an intimate drama that was instantly snapped up as a political talking point and viral-video parody fodder.) Fortunately, the guardians of film history (cultists, you might call them) are more than patient enough to wait out the culture’s short attention span, but I can’t think of a film that needs rescuing more than Eyes Wide Shut, which was greeted in many circles with disdain, disrespect, and willful misinterpretation.

And here’s where that word “timeless” comes in again: The common meme among critics of Eyes Wide Shut is that the famously reclusive Kubrick, who had holed up in his countryside estate in Britain and hadn’t made a film since 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, was woefully out of touch with us mere mortals. Therefore, he couldn’t possibly have anything relevant to say about sex and marriage, much less the world of contemporary New York, a city he hadn’t visited in decades and could only know through second-unit photography and faxes. All these slanders were tied to the persistent line about Kubrick as a cold, clinical intellectual and obsessive technician who viewed humanity from a marked distance—which was fine for the cutting satire of Dr. Strangelove or the philosophical inquiry of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but not for the particulars of life and love. Even his own screenwriter on Eyes Wide Shut, Frederic Raphael, lamented Kubrick’s relentless paring of his pages: “Kubrick does not want, and never wanted, a collaborator,” he wrote in his bitter memoir, Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir Of Stanley Kubrick, “but rather a skilled mechanic who can crank out the dross he will later turn into gold.”

My reaction to most of those criticisms is “Yeah, and…?” While I don’t buy the armchair psychology of connecting Kubrick’s reclusive habits to a fundamental misunderstanding of people, it also can’t be denied that his work does have a clinical precision. And yes, he’s more anthropologist than humanist, and thus more inclined to present a generalized view of behavior than delve into the particulars of character study. (Hence the casting of an opaque movie star like Tom Cruise, but I’ll get to that later.) But the charge that his Manhattan looks nothing like the real thing strikes me as completely irrelevant: Just a rough translation of the source material’s title, Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (“Dream Story”), should erase any expectation of gritty verisimilitude. Once Cruise is jettisoned into the night, Kubrick’s New York becomes a kind of backlot ghost town, populated only by figures that play a role in his waking dream. Dreams by their nature are not crowded with superfluous detail, and in Eyes Wide Shut, the city reflects his anxieties and desires, but bears just a superficial, two-dimensional resemblance to the real place.

The film is so flush with gorgeous bodies that it skirted the edge of an NC-17 rating—and, in fact, necessitated the hacky addition of thrust-blocking digital figures in the R-rated theatrical version—but the opening shot of Kidman’s Alice disrobing may be its only semi-erotic moment. Even then, the context isn’t sexual, but practical; she’s getting changed for a Christmas party. Moments later, she and her doctor husband Bill (Cruise) are going through their routines in the bathroom; when she asks him how she looks in her dress—and we can see she looks staggeringly beautiful—Bill tosses off the obligatory compliment and gets on with it. His indifference isn’t cruelty, really, but a byproduct of two people who have been together for a long time and are a little too used to each other. They are the archetypal bored married couple.

When Bill and Alice get to the party, hosted by the extravagantly wealthy Victor (Sydney Pollack), they can’t get away from each other fast enough. The handsome doctor is whisked away by a pair of beautiful models, while his wife sloshes down champagne and dances with a debonair Hungarian fossil who makes his intentions unambiguous. (“Don’t you think that one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties?” he asks expectantly.) Bill and Alice have no intention of deceiving each other, but they clearly enjoy flirting, and crave the attention they aren’t getting at home. At the party, Kubrick also sets the table for events to come: Bill is called upstairs to bail out Victor, whose hooker playmate has just OD’ed on a speedball. He also glad-hands the pianist (Todd Field), an old friend from his medical-school days who has since dropped out and played for-hire at parties and in jazz combos.

All this preludes a major confrontation later that night, when Bill and Alice smoke some pot and get honest with each other. They rehash the events at the party: Did Bill, by any chance, happen to fuck those two women? And if he didn’t, did he want to? And what about the Hungarian? If he was talking to her, surely he wanted to fuck her, too? Hoping to defuse the situation, Bill says he’s certain Alice would never be unfaithful to him, but that sets her off all the more: “Millions of years of evolution, right? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women it’s just about security and commitment.” She’s ticked that Bill has denied her capacity for feeling jealous and lustful, so she punishes him with this hair-raising fantasy about a naval officer:

For the technologically crippled (or disinclined), here’s the money quote:

“And yet at no time was he ever out of my mind. And I thought if he wanted me, even if it was only for one night, I was ready to give up everything. You, [our daughter] Helena, my whole fucking future. 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.”

Looking at the scene and that quote again, and considering Bill’s terrible escapades the remainder of that night and the next, I wonder which is worse: Alice admitting that she was willing to throw away her entire life with Bill and their family for a rendezvous with a handsome stranger, or that her love for Bill was “both tender and sad.” The former is devastating for obvious reasons, and it’s designed to inflame male jealousy, but the latter, while sounding loving and conciliatory, makes Bill into a pitiable, pathetic creature, adding to a sense of humiliation that will deepen as the night goes on. Alice didn’t go through with the affair, of course, and the window of opportunity was extremely narrow—just a glance that sparked her imagination, not an exchange, or even a longer look that might have held more promise. But Bill’s sense of betrayal is nearly as acute as it would have been had Alice’s fantasies been realized, and it plays in his mind throughout his own strange sexual odyssey.

Called away late at night for a house call with a deceased patient, Bill confronts the first in a string of potential sexual encounters, this one with the patient’s daughter (Marie Richardson), whose grief morphs into a misplaced and deeply awkward pass. It’s a painful yet hilariously stilted exchange, with Bill trying to fend off her advances with bland assurances about moving to a new place with her fiancé (“Michigan’s a beautiful state. I think you’ll like it a lot.”), while she desperately throws herself at him. There are many times throughout the night when he’s propositioned like this, or witnesses something provocative, or even gravitates toward the company of women as a way of blotting out the pain of Alice’s imagined tryst with the naval officer. And while he does try fecklessly to get laid—once with a beautiful prostitute (Vinessa Shaw) and later at the infamous orgy that’s the film’s centerpiece—he’s essentially passive, as unlikely to actually consummate his desire as his wife was unlikely to run off with a stranger. He’s an observer and a voyeur, not an actor, and however much he intends to get off, he’s comically incapable of making it happen. That’s the thing about dreams: They may be vivid, but they have borders separating them from reality.

It’s taken me a few viewings to come to terms with the orgy sequence, which is audaciously silly, and the most decisive break from Schnitzler’s novella. With the help of his old friend the pianist, Bill infiltrates a Long Island estate where the rich and powerful, hidden behind cloaks and masks, convene for a ritualistic sex party. Bill doesn’t belong there—and is told that he’s in danger, too—because he isn’t a member of the elite, and as an imposter, he’s punished by being unmasked and exposed before everyone. Though Schnitzler’s book doesn’t underline it too much, it’s clear enough that his main character’s Jewishness is at issue, the point being that Jews can reach a certain plateau in society, but they aren’t allowed access to the inner circle. In his memoir, Raphael drew some fire from the Kubrick family by suggesting that the director’s decision to cast Tom Cruise as the WASP-y doctor was a regrettable instance of Kubrick denying his own Jewishness and eradicating a major theme in Schnitzler’s book.

Raphael has a point, but for me, leaving the character’s identity out of the equation better squares the masquerade with the marital dilemmas at the heart of Eyes Wide Shut. The important part is that Bill doesn’t have access to the party; the whys aren’t that relevant. Critics pilloried the anti-erotic ridiculousness of the orgy, with its funereal organ music and self-sacrificing hookers and mass-like rituals involving cloaked high priests and great plumes of incense. But the orgy is more about power than sex; in that respect, it’s the opposite of some free-love hippie bacchanal, where the fucking is more democratic. Here, the rituals are about affirming the elite, and Bill doesn’t belong to this exclusionary country club, whose members are intent on subjugating their inferiors. For Bill, it’s the peak of a humiliating journey, and Kubrick accomplishes the remarkable feat of making Cruise, the brashly confident movie star, look small and scared behind that mask. Casting a real-life married couple like Cruise and Kidman in the film was obviously important to Kubrick, but beyond the gimmick, he also succeeds in cutting Cruise’s persona down to size. Seeing Cruise’s petrified eyes behind the mask when he’s exposed is an extraordinarily revealing moment, as powerful in its own way as his dramatic soul-baring in Magnolia.

There’s far too much going on in Eyes Wide Shut for me to address here—I haven’t written a thing about the lighting and composition, the aftermath of the orgy, the procession of lifeless bodies that Bill witnesses over the course of the film—but at its core, the film is about the bonds of marriage and the challenge of achieving real intimacy. That quote from Kidman above about being “awake” perhaps puts too fine a point on it, but the ending of the film is unexpectedly hopeful and affirmative. Bill and Alice have both absorbed some painful truths about the other’s hidden desires, and they’ve come out the other side bruised, but a little wiser. And when they follow through on the last utterance, the make-up sex stands to be pretty mind-blowing.

Coming Up:

Next week: Heavenly Creatures

Mar. 5: Femme Fatale

Mar. 12: Beau Travail

Mar. 19: The Way Of The Gun

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