Eyes Wide Shut
Screenplay : Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael (inspired by the novella "Traumnovelle" by Arthur Schnitzler)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : 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), Alan Cumming (Bellhop), Sky Dumont (Sandor Szavost), Fay Masterson (Sally), Leelee Sobieski (Milich's Daughter), Thomas Gibson (Carl)
"Eyes Wide Shut" has been with Stanley Kubrick for a long time. He first purchased the rights to the source material, Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 novella "Traumnovelle" ("Dream Story"), back in 1970, when he first came up with the odd notion of making a hard-core blue movie with two Hollywood mega-stars.
Now, almost 30 years later, after three years of exorbitantly secretive, meticulous production, Stanley Kubrick's final film, finished just days before his untimely death last March, has finally arrived, and it is a haunting, unique, and utterly absorbing nightmare of a film, a precise director's evocation of a waking dream, punctuated with uncharacteristic humanity and a surprisingly optimistic ending. Kubrick the ironical, meet Kubrick the humanist.
With a precise structure and grainy photography, "Eyes Wide Shut" deals with human sexuality in a way few films have ever attempted. Not since "Last Tango in Paris" (1972) has a film so consciously attempted to dig into the darkest realms of carnality in order to explore its characters. Already a risky endeavor, "Eyes Wide Shut" is all the more risky because it arrives in an age when sex in the movies is a joke; audiences accustomed to in-your-face sex comedies like "American Pie" and the thoughtless, mechanical eroticism of Zalman King and other straight-to-video junk may not be prepared for a serious film about human sexuality.
In terms of genre, "Eyes Wide Shut" is best described as a psychological drama, but it also has strong elements of the mystery/thriller genre. There are strains of paranoia, and an overall tone of fear and dread. The fact that the loose ends of the movie's central mystery are not tied up at the end is indicative of the fact that Kubrick is not particularly interested in the surface mystery. Instead, he is interested in the mystery of the human condition, and he uses the visual/thematic motif of the journey to explore his characters' dilemmas.
The film's traveler is Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), a comfortably rich doctor who lives in Manhattan with his beautiful wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman, Cruise's real-life wife), and a young daughter. Bill's world is turned upside down when Alice destroys his secure, somewhat self-absorbed confidence in their marriage by confiding to him that she was once sexually obsessed with another man.
Alice's confession is set up by a lengthy opening sequence that takes place at a lavish, black-tie Christmas party in the golden-hued mansion of one of Bill's friend/patients, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). Kubrick takes his time, separating Bill and Alice at the party and letting us watch as they are each tempted by marital infidelity--Bill, by a couple of sexy models who promise to show him "the end of the rainbow," and Alice (who is drunk on champagne), by a smooth-dancing Hungarian slickster who can quote Ovid. Neither Bill nor Alice end up breaking their marriage vows, but both come dangerously close, showing how delicate and tenuous their relationship is after nine years of marriage.
Alice's confession sends Bill out on a two-night odyssey in search of something to soothe his pain, his longing, his suddenly aroused curiosity about the more sordid side of life. This odyssey takes him through a New York City that is not so much a reality as it is a dream. Kubrick, like Alfred Hitchcock, shot almost all of his movies on soundstages, and "Eyes Wide Shut" is no different. Kubrick had entire sections of New York painstakingly recreated at Pinewood Studios in London, therefore there is something not-quite-right about every scene. The atmosphere has a kind of odd, staged quality that would be a detriment in another film; but, here, because Kubrick's intention is to sustain a nearly three-hour dream-like state, the sets give the banal, everyday city streets a slightly off-kilter quality. The fact that many of the scenes are mysteriously deserted, almost barren except for Bill and whomever he is interacting with, enhance the illusive effect.
Like a dream, characters float in and out of the story. Bill meets up with a sweet-natured prostitute (Vinessa Shaw) and a cruel-hearted Middle Eastern costume-store owner (Rade Serbedzija) who sells the affections of his 15-year-old daughter (Leelee Sobieski). At a hotel, Bill has a long conversation with the desk clerk (Alan Cumming), who is obviously homosexual and makes repeated insinuations that he is interested in Bill; the night before, Bill had almost been assaulted by a drunken group of young men who accused him of being a homosexual. All of these encounters seem to exist in pairs, and all of them are sexually related in one way or another, both positively and negatively.
The movie's centerpiece is a ritualistic, masked orgy that takes place in a cavernous Long Island mansion. Bill sneaks into the private party by getting the password from an old friend of his, a med-student-turned-musician named Nick Nightingale (Todd Field). If the movie had previously treaded in sexual innuendo, repressed desires, and seething jealousy, this is where Kubrick allows the Freudian id to run free.
Bill, who has been a traveler throughout the film, now finds himself at a destination of sorts, perhaps the "end of the rainbow" the two women had earlier offered to show him. He walks through the unrestrained sexual carousal, slowly moving from room to room, surrounded on all sides by masked figures engaged in every imaginable form of copulation. Men and women, women and women, men and men--nothing is left out. It is sex as aesthetic ritual, both animalistic and stately. Perhaps it is an attempt by lost millionaires at the end of the 20th century to recreate the spectacle of Roman orgies, but without the daring to own up to their depravity; a sad dance of wealthy, powerful people who, in their hunger for more, have lost complete touch with natural, human emotions.
As the sequence progresses, it increases in horrible, operatic grandeur, taking on the essence of an erotic nightmare. And, like a dreamer, Bill never takes part in the action; he is always standing back, a bystander, a voyeur. When a masked woman tells him that she knows he doesn't belong and that he must leave, he doesn't take her seriously. He is enjoying this dream-spectacle too much, and it is only when he is called before the others and forced to unmask that he realizes the danger he is in.
From there, the movie sinks deeper into its mystery plot, which involves the masked woman who may or may not have sacrificed her own life to save Bill's. Kubrick leaves much of it unexplained, as he should. Dreams don't have tidy conclusions. However, Bill essentially wakes up when he comes home to Alice, and has to confess everything that has been happening over the past two nights. Kubrick does not show us the confession, but rather Alice's stunned, tear-stained face in the morning light.
Kubrick the ironic filmmaker of "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), "A Clockwork Orange" (1971), and "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) would have come up with a bleak, despondent denouement to finish the ordeal. However, perhaps in his old age and during the dozen years since his last film, Kubrick has softened in his views on humanity. Despite all the controversy and rumors about sexual depravity in this film, it is ultimately about two people remembering why they love each other. (In fact, some have taken this to a ludicrous extreme and accused Kubrick of being naive about modern sexuality, as if mass orgies are now an everyday part of middle-class America.)
Once described as the least optimistic of filmmakers, Kubrick pulls a coup in the final ten minutes of "Eyes Wide Shut." The last scene, a pained reconciliation between Bill and Alice that takes place in a bustling toy store, doesn't seem to immediately fit with the rest of the film, and some may see it as a weakness. However, if you look closely and see it in relation to the rest of the Kubrick canon, it can be seen as the final statement of a man who has explored the depths of humanity in the past, present, and future, and until now, found little worth being optimistic about (his most optimistic film has been "2001," and that required the complete rebirth of mankind to achieve a positive ending).
It is perhaps the final and greatest irony that Stanley Kubrick had to come to the end of his long, distinguished career with a film that is, in essence, a long nightmare, in order to find his warmest, most humane voice.
©1999 James Kendrick