Perhaps the most fervently anticipated “art house” flick in movie history, Eyes Wide Shut was the subject of a monstrous level of tabloid gossip and industry speculation in the months (and years) leading up to its release. Director Stanley Kubrick had become a myth in his own time, a film making genius of intimidating reputation, capable of inspiring awe throughout the movie industry. Kubrick’s status as a media recluse and the whirlwind of hearsay and media speculation that followed in his wake only served to enhance his aura; he was characterised as a mysterious eccentric, an obsessive perfectionist who was somehow capable of defying Hollywood to make a series of iconoclastic movies on nobodies’ terms but his own.
Not only was Eyes Wide Shut set to become Kubrick’s first movie release in over 12 years, but he’d cast Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman – by far Hollywood’s hottest couple of the day – in the leading roles. Industry hype reached a fever pitch during the course of the film’s punishing two year shoot. Kubrick’s characteristic tight lipped secrecy over his latest film’s content set imaginations racing. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would reveal all on screen. Eyes Wide Shut would be a kinky, racy sex thriller featuring Hollywood’s two most bankable stars; something along the lines of Basic Instinct, only backed by the infinitely more reputable artistic clout of a cinematic auteur such as Stanley Kubrick. A misrepresentative promotional campaign, featuring tantalising snippets of Cruise and Kidman in a steamy clinch to the down and dirty soundtrack of Chris Isaak’s Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing only served to whet the feverish appetite of the movie going public.
Four days after delivering a final cut of Eyes Wide Shut to Warner Brothers executives, Kubrick died of heart failure. The publicity surrounding the movie took on a sanctified air. Eyes Wide Shut would be the final statement of one of cinema history’s most celebrated personages.
But when it was finally released in the middle of 1999, Eyes Wide Shut was received with almost universal disappointment. Critics roundly panned the film’s lack of pace and narrative drive. They sneered at the oddly stilted performances and derided the lack of genuine eroticism. Kubrick was out of touch, they said. He’d been a recluse for too long. The wider movie going public, lured along by the titillating promise of spicy goings on between Cruise and Kidman, were simply left baffled by Kubrick’s cold, unsparing exploration of the human condition in the pre-millennial modern world. Disappointment, derision and resentment were the order of the day. “It’s just not sexy enough!” went the bitter, repeated complaints.
Not for the first time, Kubrick had delivered a film that confounded all expectations. Almost all of his films from 2001: A Space Odyssey onwards had been subject to the same reception: initial bewilderment, followed by a gradual process of critical re-evaluation and eventually, anointment into the classical movie canon. But a decade after its release, Eyes Wide Shut is still widely misunderstood. With the possible exception of Barry Lyndon, none of Kubrick’s movies have proven to be so stubborn in garnering wider acceptance. Eyes Wide Shut has its admirers, but there is nothing like the cult devotion accorded to the likes of Dr. Strangelove or A Clockwork Orange. Even Kubrick’s most ardent aficionados remain somewhat baffled by the conundrum that is his final film.
And yet, Eyes Wide Shut is perhaps the most purely Kubrickian film of all. It’s a summation of all of the director’s thematic preoccupations, and the fullest realisation of his stylistic aesthetic. Kubrick, of course, never intended to indulge in outright titillation. Critics have a tendency to gripe over what Kubrick’s films aren’t, rather than what they actually are. Naively, perhaps, they expected him to deliver something akin to an art house porn film. What they actually got was another beast entirely; a dark, disturbing journey into the night that probed into the most base and unflattering aspects of human existence. Eyes Wide Shut is really about man’s place in the social hierarchy. How power and wealth are manipulated flagrantly and without moral conscience. How ultimately, everyone is reduced to a subservient cog in the social structure, ostensibly imposed to maintain order, but manipulated and evaded by all to a degree, each according to his status.
All of which is mused over in a relatively simple narrative framework. Cruise’s Bill Harford is a superficially well-to-do New York doctor and husband to Kidman’s Alice, an elegantly groomed trophy wife. The couple live in a façade of sophistication, affluence and security. It’s an elaborately constructed bubble of illusory outward appearances, masking the true nature of their relationship to each other and the world around them. Neither partner is fully conscious of themselves or the nature of their existence. After an evening of adulterous flirtation at a society ball, Alice’s resentment over her husband’s smug self assurance in the security of their relationship comes seething to the surface in a haze of cannabis intoxication. She drops a revelatory bombshell: a year previous she’d been fully prepared to throw away their marriage on a night of passion with a young naval officer, glimpsed only for a moment on summer vacation. Alice exults in her husband’s devastated reaction, as he suddenly comes to terms with the fragile foundation his superficially comfortable life is built upon. Called away at the crucial moment to attend to a deceased patient, Dr. Bill embarks on a reckless journey into the night, spurred on by his jealousy to pursue adulterous liaisons.
The performances of both leads were widely panned by the critics. Cruise was derided for his blandly vacuous performance and Kidman for her stilted, self conscious delivery. But in fact, both Cruise and Kidman had delivered exactly what was required of them, according to the effect Kubrick was aiming to achieve. Kubrick was renowned for his painstaking diligence in demanding take after take from his actors, until they had produced precisely what he was looking for. The critics forgot that Kubrick has never been particularly interested in naturalistic performances; his method was almost always to select an exaggerated, self conscious or “artificial” take over a “realistic” one. Kubrick was not so much interested in capturing reality as he was an impression of reality. Kidman’s performance is languorous and affected because the film aims to evoke the hypnotic atmosphere of a dream like state. Cruise’s performance is supposed to be bland and vacuous; he’s portraying a cipher, a character lacking in self awareness, imagination or depth.
Dr. Bill’s adulterous pursuits wind up immersing him in murky, sinister circumstances that go way beyond his head. In a series of escalating episodes, he finds himself gatecrashing an ultra decadent secret society party. And what he finds there is both inscrutable and terrifying. It’s here that Eyes Wide Shut delivers its centre piece: the infamous orgy sequence that attracted such a large proportion of the critical derision. Apparently, the critics were expecting a gleefully bacchanalian bout of jerk-off material. But Kubrick deliberately drains the sequence of any sexual allure. It’s not erotic, but disturbing; a cold, mechanical cornucopia of sinister masked figures copulating in a perverse ritual of satanic evocation. Bill has accidentally penetrated into the inner sanctum of the worlds’ most wealthy and powerful individuals, and he discovers that it’s rotten and depraved to the core. His indiscretion leads to the (so it is hinted) rape and ritual murder of at least one individual and the possible revenge killing of another.
The most disturbing aspect of Eyes Wide Shut – as is the case with several of Kubrick’s movies – is its cold sense of detachment, utterly devoid of sentimental platitudes. The viewer is placed at a distance from the movie’s events, drained of empathy, as if observing dispassionately from another planet. We are not drawn into the characters’ inner lives, but rather see them as if they are acting out against the tapestry of history in an absurd spectacle of blind futility. We see Bill Harford engaging in a series of frustrating endeavours, driven by nothing but his own basic animal desires, foiled at every turn by powers that are greater than himself. For all his pretensions to sophistication and civility in his smugly self satisfied internal world, he’s exposed as nothing more than another cog in the social hierarchy, subservient to more powerful interests. Despite his best efforts, Bill never does quite manage to cheat on his wife. Social transgression is only permitted to the powerful and wealthy – people like the guests at the secret society orgy – who can use and manipulate the lower orders as if they were possessions. Critics can decry the lack of “warmth” in Kubrick’s films all they like, but there’s no other director who had the courage to face up to such disturbing realities of the human condition.
Dr. Bill attempts to uncover the truth about the secret society and the events he’s become entangled in, only to see his life threatened. The world’s elite apparently don’t take too kindly to the lesser orders interfering in their affairs. In a stunning concluding sequence, Bill is warned off by Victor Ziegler, ostensibly his associate, but in reality his social superior and, so it is revealed, one of the participants in the secret orgy. Sydney Pollack’s performance as Ziegler is simply masterful: he portrays a character who is worldly wise, cynical, self confident, manipulative and ultimately, totally immoral. In other words, Ziegler is one of the world’s masters. Bill has attempted to transgress the boundaries of the social order, and must be taken to task for it. His life is spared – this time – but it’s hinted that others may have paid the price in his place.
Whatever else might by said about Eyes Wide Shut – it’s a stunning film to look at. One of the most intensely realised visual extravaganzas ever committed to celluloid. Kubrick’s obsession with achieving perfection in his lighting of sets was never more fully realised. The camera pans gracefully around the scenes like a Viennese waltz, recalling the cinematography of Max Ophuls at his elegant best. Every shot contains some new wonder for the viewer to feast his eyes upon. As a visual artefact crafted with unparalleled technical expertise, Eyes Wide Shut is unsurpassed.
It’s a dark film and a daring one, almost wilfully and perversely peculiar and, like all of Kubrick’s best work, requiring multiple viewings to fully appreciate in all of its aspects. It’s a disturbing meditation on the nature of power and its misuse, of the decadence and corruption that underlies human society. On another level, it’s a psycho-sexual thriller. It’s disturbing and unsparing about the nature of married relationships, and about the nature of all of society’s structures. But beyond all this, Eyes Wide Shut is a beautiful illustration of cinematic imagination, rich in detail, nuance and visual splendour. It’s Kubrick’s final masterpiece, perhaps the fullest realisation of his unique stylistic aesthetic. It’s high time that Eyes Wide Shut receives its due recognition as one of the master’s finest works.