Kubrick #7 – Eyes Wide Shut

Tom Cruise joins a cult. No, seriously!

The Film: Eyes Wide Shut, an update of the 1926 novel Traumnovelle (Dream Story), follows successful doctor Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) through 24 hours of bizarre encounters and psychosexual weirdness in the aftermath of his wife’s confession that she once fantasized leaving him for a stranger. Bill wanders New York looking for sexual revenge, but stumbles into a mysterious and possibly dangerous masked sex cult. After narrowly escaping, Bill spends the next day tracking the cult, finding only more mysteries, but eventually learns that the danger is mostly in his head. Bill returns home, but learns that his wife (Nicole Kidman) has found him out. He confesses, leaving the marriage strained, but intact.

“…duck, duck, duck…”

The Production: A major contributor to Eyes Wide Shut‘s cultural infamy is that so much hype and effort seems to have been devoted to so relatively little. Eyes Wide Shut is a small, intimate movie. With a few exceptions, the story takes place in modest rooms and with groups of two or three people. And yet the film took a whopping 400 days to shoot on a bloated $65 million budget. It filmed behind Orwellian security at Pinewood Studios in England, an ocean away from the film’s New York setting, while the press scratched and clawed for any dirt they could find. Eyes Wide Shut stands proud next to Cleopatra, Waterworld, and Apocalypse Now as one of the most storied and sprawling film shoots in movie history.

So what happened? Vinegar and baking soda, or, in this case, Kubrick and the Cruise family. The director’s exacting, exhaustive shooting style mixed with the casting of the most famous married couple on the planet and created pure dynamite for the media. What was going on behind the security lines? What kind of sexual deviance was Kubrick putting these movie stars through? Rumors were everywhere. One had Cruise and Kidman as married psychiatrists one-upping each other by sleeping with their patients. Another had Cruise wandering through the film in a dress.

In some alternate reality, this would totally be him.

And then the shoot ran so long that supporting actors Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh had to leave and be recast. And then word leaked that digital edits were required to avoid an NC-17 rating. Kubrick’s shocking death only four days after submitting the final cut sent the already frothing press into a frenzy.

Finally the movie arrived, and that thud you heard was the audience reaction. The prevailing opinion seemed stuck between people who hated what they saw and people who couldn’t believe that this was all there was. Audiences felt like they had been tricked. The movie died, failing to recoup the studio’s budget and putting a temporary black eye on Cruise’s status as the world’s biggest movie star. The film’s negative reputation lingers to this day.

“That’s it, no more masks, ever!  OK, fine, Vanilla Sky, but then no more!”

Best Moment: The movie’s centerpiece is the ritual sex party, a kind of Girls Gone Wild VIP fuckfest for the power elite. Bored with being the richest people in the galaxy and screwing around as they please, these people spice up their orgy by turning it into a black mass to which no one is admitted without a cloak, a Venetian mask, and a password (fidelio, or fidelity.) Bill wanders his way through the rooms, watching bug-eyed as masked prostitutes submit themselves to the group but, despite his precautions, he’s almost immediately revealed as an outsider.


Lasting Impact: Small. Eyes Wide Shut is a movie that’s still struggling to find its place with audiences and anyone looking to be inspired by Kubrick has too many other classics to choose from. Hardcore Kubrick fans still have hope that the movie will grow in status over the years.

Overall: If A.I. is Stanley Kubrick’s orphan, then Eyes Wide Shut is that unhappy looking kid in the family photo that nobody wants to talk about. Critics gave the movie a mild pass at its release, but audiences who had been prepped to expect the greatest sexual mindjob in the history of cinema roundly rejected it. Although Martin Scorsese listed Shut as one of his favorite movies of the 90s, even he admits that it can take decades for a Kubrick movie to sink in as a classic. Eyes Wide Shut is still waiting.

There’s some kind of metaphor here, but I’m just not seeing it…

I really like the film, although I recognize that it isn’t necessarily Kubrick’s best . It’s too stark and weird to be taken seriously as a drama, but Kubrick’s famous stars take their characters about as seriously as can possibly be arranged. It’s an unhappy mix. (Although what do I know? Reportedly Kubrick himself thought it was the best film he’d ever made.)

The popular critical line is that Eyes Wide Shut is about the gulf between men and women and how neither sex can truly know the other, but I’ve always read the film as being particularly hard on men. Bill’s odyssey and his crisis of faith is specifically male in nature. If the roles were reversed, there is no way that Alice would be out on that same street or looking in the same dark corners. After half a minute in the sex cult, Alice would have called a cab.

“Is that what you think?”

I’m not saying that Alice is chaste, not after she goes to so much trouble to make her husband aware that she is a sexual creature, powered by the same lusts and impulses that drive him. “If you men only knew,” she threatens. But Alice seems to have a clearer image of how their marriage works and how easily it can be unmade. The journey belongs to Bill because he seems to be the only one who actually needs it.

But what exactly is it that he needs? His motives are never clearly stated. Bill is out for revenge, sure, a bit of petty justice against the woman who has dared to shake his view of how the world works. He married her, didn’t he? He gave her a daughter. Isn’t it her job to settle in and enjoy her security? Bill has a childish need to hit back, but finds that nothing is that simple anymore. Alice stirred the pot and his dormant, poisonous beliefs are bubbling up. Each encounter seems to lunge for where it hurts and lays bare a traditionally male notion about marriage and sex. There’s the prostitute (sex as a business transaction); the shop owner who negotiates with men he has already kept from his teenage daughter (sex as a male-driven exchange); a gang of gay-bashing thugs (straight sex equals masculinity). The orgy is the most telling as it buries sex beneath masks and lavish rituals. A cynic might see a marriage.

Pictured: Marital Bliss

The film’s third act is its weakest. Bill enters a Hollywood cat-and-mouse game complete with a chase scene and a dead body. Then Bill’s inhumanly wealthy friend Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) appears and tells him that he was there, and all the bad stuff is in Bill’s imagination.

But is it? That scene doesn’t exist in the novel, where the main character’s danger is very real. Kubrick added it, perhaps to make it obvious that Bill’s head is the source of his problems, and that his thoughts will destroy his marriage, if they haven’t already (by the end of the film, Alice won’t use the word ‘forever.’ It’s too scary for her.)

By the end of the movie, the plot has given up and left us alone with Bill and Alice once more, which seems to be Kubrick’s final point. In the end, people are people and they will do what people do. Rather than wrap their life in mysteries and riddles, Kubrick’s married couple decides to be honest and, to paraphrase Alice’s last request, simply enjoy one another’s company. Maybe for them, and the rest of us, that’s enough.

The Stanley Kubrick Project

6. ???

7. Eyes Wide Shut

8. Spartacus

9. Barry Lyndon

10. Lolita

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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  1. #1 by Jafar Al-Hassan on 06/21/2010 - 1:30 AM

    Good write-up. I still think Eyes Wide Shut is one of the best films of the 90’s. Very few films have explored sexuality and marriage with this kind of complexity. And let’s not forget how visually stunning the film is. Many of Kubrick’s films were met with a cold critical reaction on their initial release, and later became heralded as classics. I think the same fate awaits Eyes Wide Shut.

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