3. eyes wide shut  (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)        


A few years before making Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick turned up at the reception of an exclusive club in London, the Groucho, introduced himself and was immediately admitted on the strength of his name alone. The only trouble was, it wasn't Stanley Kubrick at all but an impostor, who correctly surmised that since few people knew what Stanley Kubrick looked like, he was unlikely to be refused. We don't know what Kubrick himself thought of this episode, but there is a certain irony since almost the exact same thing happens to Tom Cruise's character in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's monumental final film which explores the darker nature of esotericism.

One could write about the bewilderingly lukewarm Anglo-Saxon critical reaction to Eyes Wide Shut, but in the final analysis this is just an amusing footnote. The various quotes attesting to how apparently underwhelming the film is, will be forgotten, to be revived for humour value in decades to come, like the embarassing reviews which greet so many great films at their opening, from Citizen Kane to A Clockwork Orange.

Eyes Wide Shut is a film so daring, so meticulous and so palpably superior to the majority of contemporary film-making that it makes one grieve for Stanley Kubrick's departure all the more strongly. But it is also much more - an anthology of Kubrick's work, a film-testament which nods its head to the psychological labyrinths of The Shining, the fatalism of Dr Strangelove, the modernist satire of A Clockwork Orange and the existential despair of Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick's epitaph is a film both resolutely modern (the banality of settled, safe bourgeois life in the 1990s and the search for something extreme to counteract it) and an example of old-fashioned (now dead) film-making at its most cogent and satisfying.

Based on a novella (Traumnovelle) by Arthur Schnitzler, whose writings inspired another more established classic, Max Ophuls' La Ronde (1950) Eyes Wide Shut is a psychological drama presented overtly as a series of dreamlike sequences wherein the main character, Tom Cruise's Manhattan physician, during an evening of estrangement from his wife (Nicole Kidman), indulges his sexual curiosity whilst appearing to be manipulated every step of the way by a sinister secret cabal which has taken the concept of exclusivity and self-indulgence to new levels.   [Above left: Sydney Pollack as Victor Ziegler]

It is perhaps not surprising that viewers who are expecting an erotic drama featuring a real life couple of A List stars "at it", only to be confronted with a forensic depiction of the breakdown of a marriage, followed by a fatalistic dream-trip into a world of misogynistic decadence, are likely to come out of the cinema scratching their heads. Kubrick's final bad taste joke was to have shot a trailer showing Cruise and Kidman naked in front of a mirror - pointing the (big) finger at the studio and the ignorant elements of the audience. But for Kubrick scholars, there is absolutely no excuse. The theatrical, "non-realistic" style is pure Kubrick, the ugly, unreal depiction of sex in Eyes Wide Shut harks back to the depiction of both violence and sex in A Clockwork Orange. The big questions - what are we made of? (what has become of us?) and the humanist morality are all classic Kubrick, and yet far from retreating to tried and tested techniques, he takes the humanist message much further here.    [Right: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as William and Alice Harford]

The style of Eyes Wide Shut is both its great strength and also a source of much of the difficulty experienced by a modern audience: slow, languid, long-take aesthetics might seem quaint if not reactionary to some, but it offers elements of the style of a number of Kubrick's films. The Shining is a clear aesthetic stablemate, particularly in the use of low interior lighting and slow steadicam, the pacing and construction of space belongs to 2001, there is a flash of Full Metal Jacket in the theatrical overlapping dialogue of the appalling college kids who accost Cruise in the street. Thematically, the identification with a weak protagonist's existential journey strongly calls to mind Barry Lyndon. Kubrick's films are always challenging and layered, even when on the outside they present a more accessible face than this one. The overall effect achieved here is of an ethereal blanket and the idea is to lose yourself in it, as Cruise loses himself in the film.

But Eyes Wide Shut is difficult viewing on other levels, too. The elite club which Cruise inflitrates practically makes a science out of the objectification of women, who throughout the film are either walking mannequins, corpses, prostitutes or at best, just promiscuous. One character uses the line "she was just a hooker" to refer to a dead girl. The masks call to mind pornographic anonymity. It is a gamble to use recognisable commodities such as Cruise and Kidman to portray a couple in turmoil - there is inevitably star-baggage, not to mention pre-conceived opinions of the actors' abilities or desirability which might distract from the overall tone. But Cruise's apparent struggle with the intensity of certain scenes is absolutely in character and Kidman's performance is effortless. There's no need for the Method for these two to behave like a have-it-all couple in difficulty.

What strikes one first about Eyes Wide Shut (if one excepts Nicole Kidman's immaculate nude in the opening scene) is how brilliantly Kubrick depicts a world dripping with wealth. The production design in the couple's Manhattan flat, at the party the couple attend and at the stately home Cruise's character visits, is inch perfect in this regard - resisting any temptation to "Hollywoodise" the affluence on show, but rather subtly capturing the predictability and moral squalor of "comfortable" wealth. This backdrop perfectly underscores the darker forces at work in the film, which explores the line to be drawn between an exclusive club for the rich and powerful to indulge themselves in absolute anonymity, and a Nietzchian brotherhood with the power of life or death over "lesser mortals".   [Left: Nicole Kidman and Madison Egington]

The film features a rather disarming performance from veteran Hollywood director Sydney Pollack as Cruise's friend and principal tormentor. Watching Cruise walking the streets of Manhattan in Eyes Wide Shut, pursued by sinister forces and frightened for his life, suddenly makes one think of the Sydney Pollack-directed John Grisham thriller The Firm (1994). Eyes Wide Shut is like The Firm, but instead of running, which Cruise does practically all the way through The Firm, he walks here throughout. This illustrates the difference between a film like Eyes Wide Shut, which takes the time it needs to draw you into a character's predicament, and a mainstream thriller like The Firm, which has to travel fast to avoid you thinking too much.

Eyes Wide Shut like all of Kubrick's work, is a moral film, even moralistic at times, as it argues that psychological unfaithfulness can be just as devastating as physical betrayal and in the end, it comes down on the side of family, commitment, and monogamy. It's also a film that dares to be intellectual, as Kubrick's natural European impulses are no longer kept at bay. The way the film combines eroticism with esotericism is much closer to the Bertollucci of Last Tango in Paris than the director of Spartacus. In the punctuation of reality by dreams and dreams by reality (and in the confusion of both) it is closer to Bunuel than anything else Kubrick has done. Whilst Kubrick has always been a sage in the language of cinema, rarely has he been as literary as this. Contrast his Lolita, where in script and conception he distanced himself almost totally from Nabokov.   [Right: Tom Cruise, Leelee Sobieskee and Rade Serbedzija]

Eyes Wide Shut has the powerful combination of beauty and anger which runs like a fault-line through every Kubrick film, but what is finally different here is the intimacy of the message: there is bleakness but no stridency, rather a soft, melancholy pessimism, played out through the dissonant piano keys of Jocelyn Pook's score. This is the final chapter of Kubrick's humanistic journey through Cinema. He made Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket and whilst everyone applauded, no-one actually listened. Now we can look at what has become of ourselves, one last time, through his eyes.


Eyes Wide Shut 159 minutes  Director Stanley Kubrick  Writer Frederic Raphael  Actors Tom Cruise  Nicole Kidman  Sydney Pollack  Marie Richardson  Todd Field  Photography Larry Smith  Score  Gyorgy Ligeti  Jocelyn Pook


previous      next      full list