Finished several days before Stanley Kubrick's death, Eyes Wide Shut still elicits a lukewarm reaction from film buffs. It has “generally favorable” reviews from aggregators, but it's very few critics' favorite Kubrick film. It’s usually likened to his lesser works, such as Barry Lyndon. A messy, possibly unfinished and meandering work of a former genius out of touch with sexuality or whatever. You could attribute this mediocre, “not his best work” tsk-tsking to a misleading, “steamy” ad campaign or to the greater conclusion that critics, in most cases, fundamentally misunderstood the film. Or maybe the film is operating on so many conscious and subconscious levels that most of the criticisms are missing the point entirely.
The 1999 viewing public, anxious for a Kubrick film after 12 years since the release of Full Metal Jacket, expected EWS to be a movie about fucking. But it’s not. It’s a movie about not fucking.
Based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 novella Traumnovelle (translation: “Dream Story”), EWS centers on the male ego, its projections of fantasy, and the financial and emotional transactions of sex. One shot — the shot from the trailer with Dr. Bill (Tom Cruise) walking down the street punching his own fist — in front of a rear-projection screen of the fake New York set, seems to exist for no other reason than to hammer in the fact that this is all a fantasy, his neuroses made corporeal, his image superimposed on some two-dimensional screen. He is just a pawn, a plaything for the more powerful to control, just like Cruise himself, who felt lost in Kubrick's grueling-bordering-on–soul-crushing approach to filmmaking.
Like almost every other Kubrick work, it requires several viewings to even begin to unpack what is going on past the superficial plot points, which most of its detractors get hung up on. After Alice (Nicole Kidman) and Dr. Bill spend the first act flirting with hot models and Hungarian playboy Sandor Szavost (who might be an analog for the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton Szander LaVey), Alice drops the bombshell that she wanted to fuck a Marine on some vacation a long time ago. Mind blown and feelings shattered, Dr. Bill then embarks on an odyssey through a fake New York to dip his toe in the water of whom he might be able to fuck, from a grieving widow to a prostitute, a teenager, a concierge and anonymous prostitutes at a comically unreal orgy. Dr. Bill ultimately finds himself inside a ludicrous conspiracy before coming clean to his wife about how he also has all these repressed fantasies. Alice essentially forgives him and they decide to fuck. Along the way, every character Dr. Bill encounters either threatens to hurt him, tries to fuck him or tries to squeeze money out of him. It’s the American male delusion of narcissism that everyone is out to harm or hump him. It's the stuff of first-person video games.
The film is dripping with patterns and a dense network of motifs — both visual and audio — the most obvious one being the Christmas lights and pagan stars (Star of Ishtar or Star of Venus). Christmas, after all, began as a pagan holiday. Every set is crammed with soft, fuzzy Christmas lights, which create a very warm ambiance (like in Barry Lyndon, the first film to be lit by candlelight), which is superficially very pleasing. Then, there's the rainbow motif (the costume shop, the models teasing Dr. Bill to see “where the rainbow ends”), where a rainbow represents fantasy. This motif gets more complex because it's also the symbol for queer pride, and Dr. Bill is taunted by frat bros for them perceiving him as gay. Add in the real-life rumors about Cruise and the fact that he's literally wearing a mask and pretending to be someone he's not, and there's suddenly a lot going on here.
In classic Kubrick fashion, the film is overloaded with doubles. A bereaved woman throws herself at Dr. Bill, and her husband walks in after Bill rebuffs her advances. The actor who plays her husband, Thomas Gibson, is a dead ringer for Cruise. The opening Christmas party is a mirror image of the orgy scene. In the penultimate sequence, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) and his blocking directly echo the Red Cloak's gestures in the orgy scene, which film analyst Rob Ager details here.
You could fill a book with the aural and visual tapestry and references (the surreal blue lights, the X's, and on and on), but the most significant doubling in the film is how Kubrick doubles London as New York City. Kubrick was averse to flying as he got older, so there was little chance this would actually be filmed in New York. He shot most of the exteriors on a London backlot, which was playing New York. However, just as in The Shining, EWS includes a maze of impossible geography. For example, Bill gets in a taxi cab and gets out across the street. Very little effort was made to hide this fact, and we can assume this is intentional, because it's Kubrick and because our dreams operate in impossible spaces.
My favorite anecdote about the production of EWS is from the documentary Stanley Kubrick's Boxes, which explains the extraordinary detail to which Kubrick went to get a reference for Domino the prostitute's red door outside her apartment (which is maybe on screen for 10 seconds, tops, and serves no obvious point). His nephew Manuel Harlan photographed every single red door in London every day for a year and then New York City (mind you, this was shooting still film, so not cheap).
For all the conspiracy theorists out there, this film is rife with allusions — both obvious and deep — to Illuminati-type cabals such as Bohemian Grove. The unnamed group that throws the orgy is obviously supposed to represent this type of group. In that sense, it's also a film about class. Dr. Bill is certainly a wealthy man relative to most people, but he is not welcome to be part of the ultra-elite, the nation makers. That's by invitation only. But this version of a Manhattan overrun by the disgustingly wealthy is certainly not fiction, and it's about how deeply money is baked into immorality and wanton destruction.
The use of Venetian masks (especially the ghastly Plague Doctor mask) speaks to the metaphorical masking in our culture. Look at Domino the hooker's bedroom wall. It's littered with African masks, too. And take Dr. Bill's orgy mask, which is based on a mold of Ryan O'Neal (the star of Barry Lyndon), which is both an intertextual allusion and perhaps reinforces the idea that Dr. Bill is putting on an actor's mask and is going to embody the archetypal role of philandering husband.
Many viewers got hung up on the wooden or stagey timbre to the performances, especially Kidman in the infamous stoned fight scene that serves as the inciting incident. The woodenness I chalk up to the fact that these are adults cosplaying what they think adults should act like. Kidman and Cruise go to different places as if they're trying on different masks, trying to be what they think humans should be, because the banality of comfort and adulthood has robbed them of their identities.
Nothing in this film is to be taken literally. It’s all a dream. Pure fantasy. Sex without repercussions, in that prelapsarian/pre-AIDS kinda way. The entire orgy scene — famous for having digital bodies inserted to block the semi-graphic sex — is not sexy at all. It's frightening. The sex seems mechanical and hollow, like two characters from the Sims miming kinky sex. This is all intentional, because it's just a projection of Dr. Bill's idea of what a crazy sex party would be like. Turns out it's not that interesting, even though this sequence is probably the most memorable passage of the film.
The film isn't concerned with the sexiness of sex. Instead, it's about what happens when we fantasize, what our mind does when it wants to go to that sinful place of revenge and lust. Dr. Bill more than anything wanted to see what was out there, even if he was never brave or bold enough to cheat on his wife. He just wanted to put himself in the situation where he could be that guy and assert himself as powerful equal to his wife. And that's enough for him to realize he's not the Lothario or vengeful man he thinks he might be.
It’s no coincidence that Cruise and Kidman were married at the time, and some have suggested the endless shoot (it held the record for length of a continuous film shoot) played a significant part in the star couple’s divorce. They are foils to Stanley Kubrick and his wife, Christiane, whose paintings litter the cloistered interiors and who sustained a decades-long romance without the entertainment industry being able to corrupt it. By all accounts, it was an enviable relationship.
In due time, EWS will be looked back upon and picked over the way The Shining is now. It truly is that dense, layered and uninterested in forcing the viewer to perceive it one specific way, which runs counter to most Hollywood filmmaking approach of clarity above all. Perhaps more important (and unlike The Shining, say), it’s requisite viewing for anyone and their significant other. Everyone has fantasies, even (and especially) the most puritanical and monogamous among us.
The idea or possibility of fucking or cheating is often more powerful than the actual act, and if we can admit that to our partners instead of sneaking around, it might make monogamy more sustainable. While this subtext is pretty heavy and quite serious, it’s not didactic. In fact, this film is more of a comedy than a morality play. It’s just that the Gothic/erotic dressings and the dramatic music cues make many viewers take the plot too seriously. It’s one long anxiety dream with a funny, realistic and arguably happy ending. Like most marriages. If you don’t laugh when the last line of the film is delivered, then this film is probably not for you.
And thank fuck it’s not a film about faithfulness in the digital/smartphone/whatever the fuck messy era we’re in now. Who wants to watch a movie about characters looking at screens the whole time? It’s an issue filmmakers have been and will be struggling with for a long time — how to make the internal world of computing externally dramatic — but EWS is not about screens but, rather, mindscreens. While technology may change how people flirt or fuck extramaritally, it doesn’t change the what or why. Take the Ashley Madison leak, which quickly deflated into triviality as the hacked details suggest only a small percentage of those who signed up for the service ever used it to flirt or fuck. The majority of users were just curious to see what was inside. Just like Dr. Bill. And what was inside was not nearly as powerful as what is inside the fantasy holder’s own mind.
Eyes Wide Shut can show us a lot about fidelity (Fidelio!) and the corruption or resculpting of traditional values in a greed- and comfort-obsessed culture. It’s an open text and one that critics and scholars have only begun to start excavating. It's Kubrick's densest and most layered film. Watch it now, and then again in a year. If anything’s changed, it’s you.
Correction: This post was amended to reflect that Stanley Kubrick's wife name was Christiane.
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