Tuesday, August 07, 2007

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999)

It's a sad testament to the state of contemporary critical analysis (and in particular, film criticism in this country) that a truly remarkable, multi-layered, deeply meaningful film such as Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) was greeted by film reviewers upon its release not in terms of its place in Kubrick's career; nor in terms of what it actually concerned (or appeared to concern), but merely in terms of the then-"news worthy" Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman celebrity train. I suppose I should lay equal blame on the craven studio marketing campaign that promised this effort (from an intellectual, cinematic maestro...) was going to be the "sexiest film of all time." Perhaps it is a blessing that Kubrick didn't live to see how his final work of art was treated both in the marketplace of commerce and the marketplace of ideas. This is one of those cases in which the audience (mainstream film critics often included) weren't equal (or even near equal...) in terms of intelligence and thoughtfulness to the work of art it was being asked to countenance and consider.

Upon reflection, Eyes Wide Shut, a modernized adaptation of Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler's 1925 sexually-frank novella, Traumnovelle (a.k.a. "Dream Story"), is one of the finest, most symbolic and unique films of the 1990s. To understand the film properly, one should remember the context of the decade in which it was created. The nineties is the era in American modern history of "sex" on display; out in the open; in the national dialogue. This was the era of the Clinton Impeachment over oral sex (as well as the era of jokes about vaginal penetration by cigar). The 1990s was the era of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas scandal, which involved jokes about pubic hair on coke soda cans. From the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" controversy in 1993, another discussion of sex (in this case, homosexuality) debated in the public square, to the ascent of such television as Ally McBeal in the latter part of the decade, sex was overtly the obsession of politics and national dialogue. Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Ellen DeGeneres and her 1997 coming out with the "Puppy" episode of her sitcom, Woody Allen and Soon Yi. Need I continue? One can list dozens of 1990s "news" stories revolving around sex. And importantly, many of these examples involved an unpleasant, seedy side to sex: infidelity in the case of the Commander in Chief; sexual harassment in the case of a then-prospective Supreme Court Nominee, and so forth. Had Clinton been elected with "eyes wide shut," in that Americans voted for him even though it was clear he had a shady side? Had Clarence Thomas ascended to the highest court in the land as Republican Senators with "eyes wide shut" passed him through, with a lifetime appointment? Isn't "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," actually merely a synonym for "Eyes Wide Shut?" It's a textbook example of looking "the other way" at something that is plain as day.

This culture of public sexuality (and not necessarily pleasant sexuality) is the backdrop of Stanley Kubrick's final film. For those of you who don't recall the film's story, it goes something like this. Wealthy physician Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his gorgeous wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman) attend a Christmas party of a wealthy patient, Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). There, Alice is nearly seduced by a strange and creepy European fellow. She rejects his advances on the basis of her marriage to Bill, but on the following evening - when loosened up by a little weed - Alice lashes out at Bill. In the privacy of their bedroom (and garishly-lit bathroom), she tells him a story; about how just a year earlier she had a wild sexual fantasy about a stranger, a naval officer she happened to encounter while vacationing on Cape Cod with Bill and their young daughter, Helena. Alice felt such deep sexual attraction to this sailor, she claims, that she would have given up her husband and her daughter for just one fleeting night of passionate sex with him.

This sexual revelation shocks the button-downed Bill to his core, and he undertakes what amounts to an Orphean odyssey (one of my favorite plot devices, by the way) into the seamy underbelly of the sex trade in Manhattan. His mission: sexual vengeance. Bill nearly goes to bed with a sexy prostitute named Domino, ends up exposed to child exploitation in a costume shop with a gorgeous Lolita (Sobieski), and then finds himself at a creepy, vaguely-Satanic orgy for the super-rich at an isolated country estate. Unfortunately, Bill pays the price for venturing out of his comfortable cocoon and into this dangerous world: his livelihood and family are threatened when he is "outed" at the orgy and his unmasked face is seen (and no doubt remembered...) by the gathered guests. Bill escapes the scene intact, but learns that there was a price exacted for his sexual curiosity. The friend - a piano player named Nick Nightingale - who told him about the orgy (and provided the password: FIDELIO) has been "disappeared," and the beautiful masked woman who rescued him at the orgy has died in what appears to be an arranged "accidental" drug overdose. Ziegler was also present at the orgy and warns Bill to back off; to leave this be, lest repercussions for Harford and Alice grow. Bill acquiesces, but at home, Alice discovers the mask that Bill wore at the orgy, and the truth is out. Bill collapses into tears...

Bill's journey to the place, in the words of a super model he encounters, "where the rainbow ends" is one of dangerous duality. And that's a critical point in any understanding of Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick is delving here into the duality of "fantasy" sex: the illusion and the reality of sexual transgressions. He reveals this duality through a number of devices, not the least of which is the symbol of the "mask." Every character in the film wears one, whether literal or metaphorical. Bill puts on the mask of "Dr. Bill" and flashes his New York Medical Board Identification Card as though he is an F.B.I. agent investigating a case. Whenever Bill needs access to a world far from his own, whether the costume shop or a hotel, he flashes that card and puts on the air of objectivity and distance we have come to expect from doctors; a level of dispassion. We see it when he is with Ziegler too, an almost glacial non-emotionality. Underneath - below the mask - Bill is passionate in the sense that he is "aroused" by Alice's revelation of sexual desire for the sailor. Repeatedly in the film, Kubrick cuts to black-and-white fantasies - Bill's fantasies - of the sailor making passionate love to his wife while she writhes in passion. What Eyes Wide Shut does not make explicitly clear, is whether Bill's arousal is one of "anger," sexual stimulation or "discovery" or all three. When Alice late in the film relates to Bill a nightmare about being "naked" in a "garden" with him; we begin to understand that this is, in a sense, an Adam and Eve story. Bill has been shaken loose from his unquestioning paradise (his belief that his wife is not a sexual creature, driven by sexual desires) and his odyssey is one of "reality;" of being thrown out of the Garden of Eden.

Bill is not the only one who wears a mask in the film. Alice wears a mask too. Her mask is one of female propriety. She is a mother of a child; wife of a respected doctor. She is a professional woman. The mask of propriety - of respectability, one might claim - is shaken loose by her use of marijuana. In a splendid, lengthy dialogue scene with Bill, all of Alice's guilt and anger are released in a tidal wave of raw, emotional bluntness. She's cruel to Bill. Deliberately cruel. What she reveals is that her sexual desire is as "real" as any man's. That, contrary to popular myth, a woman can harbor sexual fantasies about fucking strangers too. Alice wants to hurt Bill, and that's why she tells him the story about the sailor; but like so many people in this repressed country, she is also deeply conflicted about sex. She has a nightmare in which she participates in an orgy, and is quite upset by it. She is unaware that her "dream" (and remember this is a "Dream Story") echoes Bill's waking odyssey.

Other characters in the drama also wear masks to hide what they don't want to see or others to see (eyes wide shut). Nick plays piano at the orgy...with a blind-fold on. Ziegler wears the mask of upright citizen and morally fit member of society when in fact, even during his Christmas party, he is upstairs fucking hookers. The men and women at the orgy all wear masks too: to hide their faces and indulge in their darkest and deepest sexual desires unrepressed by moral code.

A mask reveals one face and hides another - but which is the true face? Every major character in Eyes Wide Shut boasts this duality; this Janus-like quality of seeming to be one thing but actually being something quite different. Commendably, Kubrick utilizes other tools besides masks to express this essential quality of duality. Sexual adventure for lack of a better term, is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, sex with a stranger promises tantalizing pleasure; but on the other hand can be dangerous. In the case of pretty Domino, whom Bill nearly sleeps with, she tests HIV positive. In the case of Milich's underage daughter, intercourse is actually not merely wrong; but illegal, and therefore holds the threat of police intervention. In the case of the strange and disturbing orgy, Bill's participation at the event almost threatens everything he holds dear, from his career to his relationship with his wife. "FIDELIO" is the password (fidelity) at the orgy, and it is also, in a sense, Bill's constant reminder - even in the midst of his "arousal" over Alice's revelation - not to stray too far into the unknown. The surface appearance of Domino, the Milich daughter and the orgy is not the whole truth. There is the troubling "underneath." Just scrape the surface a little, and it is there (which, I contend, makes this film a Freudian exercise if there ever was one).

Alice gives Bill the "apple" and throws him out of marital paradise, so it is appropriate that much of Eyes Wide Shut is about Bill's dawning sexual awareness of self. It is highly unusual (but it makes a point...) that virtually every major character in the film relates to Bill sexually -- on a sexual level. He goes to visit Marion, a patient whose father has just died, and she makes a pass at him. He walks down a Manhattan street alone at night and is gay-bashed by a group of drunk blue collars guy, who make specific reference about having anal sex with him. Later, he is propositioned by a prostitute, but it is clear that Domino doesn't merely view Bill as "a John" or "business." She invites him back to her apartment for goodness' sake. How many prostitutes street walkers want a client to have that level of familiarity? She imagines pleasures with him, it is clear, and is disappointed when he is called away. Milich's daughter also relates to Bill sexually, whispering something naughty (and unheard by the audience) in his ear. Even in situations which are clearly not sexual, Bill is treated as a sexual object. For instance, when he goes to a hotel to inquire about Nick's disappearance, the gay hotel clerk (Alan Cumming) comes onto him. I believe that these events - basically everyone wanting to have sex with Bill - represent Kubrick's attempts to demonstrate the absolute availability of sexual encounters, if Bill should care to pursue them. He does not, and why he does not, I believe, is one of the issues raised (obliquely) by the film. Why is Bill faithful? As always, the glory of a Kubrick film is that he leaves such space wide open for individual interpretation, and the film can be read a number of ways.

The other way Kubrick deals with duality involves the film's deliberate blurring of the line between fantasy and reality; between dream and waking life. Alice has a dream about being at an orgy and Bill attends an orgy in waking. Alice reveals her sexual fantasy of being with that sailor, and that "dream" almost instantly becomes a sort of running stag film in Bill's mind;it is VERY real to him. Bill wants to feel sexual temptation like Alice felt, and suddenly everyone and their brother and sister is coming onto him. Is this real? Imagined? Fantasy? Ego? Finally, there's no good way to parse the disturbing orgy sequence, which plays out as some kind of arcane religious ritual, as anything but Bill's mind reclaiming power over his id before he is resigned to eternal damnation. The orgy is a dark place; a warning to his mind to go back (to not have sex with Domino or Marion) lest he lose that which he values, his marriage. Again, the literal and metaphorical gateway is that word fidelio. Fidelity is what restores him. Yes, the orgy represents temptation, but it is also so over-the-top, so sinister that his presence there and the repercussions, snap him back to reality (and to his priorities, which in this case involve protecting his family).

Much of Eyes Wide Shut, I believe, also utilizes the metaphor of physical nudity to express the idea of being emotionally naked or emotionally exposed. Alice experiences a nightmare in which she is naked and it disturbs her. The first shot of the film is a rear-view of Alice completely nude (and it is a spectacular shot), but her back remains to the camera, meaning we don't have access to her face, or thus what she is thinking. Later, when we do see her face, it is in a mirror (again with the duality), and I interpret her expression (as Bill attempts to kiss her...) as one of either disappointment or boredom. Bill also steadfastly refuses to be "naked" in the film, always wearing that physician's mask of dispassion and distance. He is told, at one point during the orgy, to "remove his clothes" or it will be "done" for him. That's sort of the narrative drive of the film in a simple thought: Bill coming at last in touch with his emotions and drive (and sexuality) and not hiding it, not burying it under layers of professional propriety. The catharsis in the film, and I don't think many critics or viewers understood this, occurs when Alice confronts Bill - literally - with his mask. She lays out the mask before him and he bursts into helpless tears, with no choice remaining but to confront the truth; his id - about sexual temptation, about his sexual odyssey - everything. Indeed, one might read the film in this way: It's the story of a woman very unhappily married to a passionless man who just "cruises" (pun intended) through life never really feeling much. A European stranger, a man of Hungarian accent who could very be Dracula (ad who represents foreign eroticism), attempts to seduce his wife, and the husband is not roused to jealousy. He does nothing. Feels nothing. So, angry at the lack of passion, the lack of jealousy, this woman reveals a story that challenges the husband's very manhood. In response, the sexual impulse in the husband (Bill) is consequently re-awakened. After several attempts to channel it (with prostitutes, at an orgy), he "morally" comes home to wife and, as the final scene suggests, finally - in Alice's terms - "fucks" his wife. It was apparently a long time coming. Read in this manner, the film is a defense of marriage or monogamy. All sorts of obstacles and temptations are put before a married couple (super models, orgies, prostitutes, Lolitas, and men with European accents...) but the couple ends up together, relieving the sexual tension with one another, in a "healthy" and "safe" coupling.

Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream? Is there some reason to believe that Eyes Wide Shut (a title which suggests REM sleep, or dreaming) is but a phantasm of slumber? Is it but a dream itself? The film could be read that way too. If this odyssey is Bill's dream, his sexual fantasy, then that certainly explains why everybody comes onto him. We're all the heroes of our own sexual fantasies, aren't we? To express that this is a dream world, Kubrick puts up almost subliminal messages as clues to the audience. When Bill meets Domino the streetwalker, behind him two words are seen in neon: EROS and HOTEL - both of which seem to be leading him one way (to a tryst). In her apartment, a book title is obvious. More accurately, it's placement is obvious so we can read it: Introducing Sociology. Sociology, of course, is the study of human interaction, and that's the name of the game in this film...the most intimate of human interactions. Finally, after Bill escapes the dangerous orgy, he reads a newspaper and the headline blares, not coincidentally: LUCKY TO BE ALIVE! I suggest that given Kubrick's obsessive methodology in creating a film and composing shots (deciding what is seen in each and very frame), none of this can possibly be accidental or coincidental. Ditto the napkin - in full insert shot - that reads, importantly FIDELIO. EROS (love), Sociology (human interaction)m Sex and Danger: Lucky to be Alive (in the age of AIDS), and FIDELIO (faithful to a spouse). These are core components of the film, no?

Eyes Wide Shut is a cold, deliberate, hypnotic film; like many of Kubrick's ventures. But it is visually and intellectually haunting. I own it on DVD because I'm a Kubrick fan, but also because I'm a horror movie fan, and in many important ways, this film shares something in common with the horror genre. The primary narrative (with so many gaps in logic) when coupled with the symbolic imagery creates a kind of half-rational, half-recognizable dream or nightmare world. A minimalist score (a haunting, repetitive piano) underscores the horror, and occasionally Kubrick makes us stare right into the heart of darkness when he provides first-person subjective shots of the masked denizens at that creepy, creepy orgy. These people look like monsters, like vultures as they stare blankly at the camera (and thus us). They are the id let loose, the ugliness of desire run rampant, without restraint or morality.

Kubrick, though obsessed with realism in terms of lighting and set design, comes from a period in film history when directors could be more expressive; more artificial and less naturalistic. I suspect this is why modern audiences may not take to the film easily. It seems slow to us because it consists of long, elaborate shots that chart space (think of those hotel corridors in The Shining, and you know what I mean.) Characters dreamily repeat themselves many times in the film, speaking in a kind of sing-songy, rote fashion. I see all of this as integral parts of the film's lyrical, trance-like mood, but it is not *technically* realistic. But this is art, not reality tv, so deal with it. Unfortunately, the tide of history is against Kubrick and this film tradition: as a culture we are demanding more and more grittiness and "realism" from our entertainment, and letting go of artifice and theatricality. Quick, fragmentary editing has replaced long shots that chart a film's inner space and geography. I submit that, given film's relationship to dreaming (with eyes wide open), this is a mistake. Film can be like a dream or a nightmare, and we risk sacrificing subtext and symbolism if everything we see must be accepted as "literal" truth.

In the final analysis, it doesn't matter how you choose to interpret this film. It could be a "dream story," a sexual fantasy, a passion play defending marriage, a story about the double edged sword of sexual encounters (tantalizing AND dangerous), or an Orphean tale of a hero reclaiming his bride after traveling a stygian underworld. Perhaps, by contrast, it is a sexual Garden of Eden story, about a man pushed out of marital bliss by "knowledge" of his wife's fantasies. In the end...no matter. What's great - and rewarding as a viewer - is that Kubrick has offered a rich, complex film about which we can speculate and interpret so much. He has done the work of the artist. He has "created." Now you decide.


  1. Anonymous2:18 PM

    I love Stanley Kubrick films. Not all of them, but most of them. I have never really liked The Shining. But 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket are some of my all time favorite movies. So, needless to say, I was excited to see Eyes Wide Shut when it came out. I was REALLY let down. Honestly, no matter how much deep meaning is alleged to be in this movie, to me it is just meandering and pointless. I'm sure he had some point to the movie but it either didn't work or was completely lost on me. I saw it as more of a mainstream knock-off of Behind the Green Door. I think it's sad the Kubrick ended his career with a whimper like this. Even if this movie is all you say it is, it just doesn't measure up to his other movies. I would have much rather seen him make AI. I enjoy Spielberg's take on the material, but whenever I watch AI, I can't help but think how awesome it would have been if Stanley Kubrick would have made it. Alas, we will never know. He chose to leave us with Eyes Wide Shut as his final word on film. Bummer.

    Chris Johnson

  2. um...to disagree...this is the best film of the 90s, and a fine conclusion to a genius career.

    when i hear people complain about this movie, its often griping about a perceived lack of "deep meaning" that they feel has been placed on it.

    of course, there are some big themes at work here, mainly the knotty relationships between love, sex, fidelity, and deception, and how we build our worlds on assumptions that may be just a tad pat and reductionist.

    i don't know, most of the films i love i come around to seeing as comedy (albeit sometimes very dark and dry like this one), and cruise's journey seems to be a brilliant joke on both his smug character and his own sexually ambiguous persona.

    i guess i just don't relate to the compulsion to constantly decode "profundity" in works like this. i find that once you relax, get into the rhythms and repetitions, the movie is pitch perfect, beautiful, and possessing a very frank wit.

    nice to see you writing so much recently, john, about things that fall into the new "highbrow" ghetto.

    in school, taking film classes, i felt very passionately about the value of genre and cult cinema, and felt it was undervalued.

    in the "real world", the deaths of bergman and antonioni being a bitter reminder, i find the value of acknowledged art cinema to not only be undervalued, but actively derided. its like you're an asshole if you like anything that isn't in english and released by a major studio.

    the two realms don't seem too far apart from me. they're both passionate, personal, and value art above conventional, boring "good taste". they both show me things i haven't seen and give me the feeling of something deeply felt being communicated.

    its middlebrow dreck that congratulates itself for a lack of courage to go a step farther that disgusts me.

    blah blah blah...eyes wide shut is my favorite movie of the 90s.

  3. Anonymous7:45 AM

    Dude, in the 90's we got films like . . .

    Pulp Fiction
    Reservoir Dogs
    Boogie Nights
    Schindler's List
    Saving Private Ryan
    Jackie Brown
    Lost Highway

    Just to name a few. Eyes Wide Shut was the best film of the 90's? All I can say is, I'm glad you enjoyed it so much.

    Chris Johnson

  4. astrid9:24 AM

    John, you wordy bastard. Now I have to go back and watch this movie again.

    I saw it in the theater when it came out but 1-the only seats left were up front, so the experience was less than enjoyable and 2-I freaking can't stand Tom Cruise. I never watched it again; so until now I was in the camp of folks who wrote this film off. I will say though, that some of the images have stuck with me all these years; visually if nothing else, this movie was powerful and got to me.

  5. Michael A. De Luca12:06 PM

    I particulary dig the halting cadences of Sydney Pollack in the climactic scene by the red pool table. "Now, just a minute , Bill..." I also love the way Doctor Bill flashes his credentials, which function both as holy water, and a skeleton key to the netherworld of night. And Todd Field; it is glorious to imagine the insights passed on to him by Kubrick during production, that kind of creative arsenal that led him to produce "In The Bedroom" and "Little Children", two works of startling maturity. And come on, Chris Isaak and Shostakovich? There is only so much aural goodness one man can take! And as far as Alice's encounter with the count at the outset of the film, I find the scene less sinister than comic. After all, "Have you read Ovid on the language of love?" is perhaps the cheesiest pickup line of all time, only the kind one would expect be uttered by a cheesy decadent European count, or Christopher Walken as "The Continental" on Saturday Night Live. This high wire act between emotional sadism, sinister dream logic, and high comedy, is yet another example of Stanley Kubrick's genius.

  6. I find the idea of a decadent, sexually vampiric ruling class that remains above and beyond the grasp of other members of the ruling class to be far more terrifying, and terribly beautiful, than anything in THE SHINING.

    Yet, THE SHINING still has its moments of terrible beauty.

  7. I love reading all these comments on Eyes Wide Shut. I guess my review makes it pretty plain, but just to clarify: I also consider it one of the ten best films of the 1990s(though I liked your list, Chris).

    I think the film does have a strange sense of humor. The seduction scene by the Hungarian I describe as Count Dracula is so creepy it indeed borders on camp. But I believe it's intentional.

    I don't find Eyes Wide Shut in any way meandering because every scene has a purpose and a meaning.

    I'm just fascinated by this film; perhaps because it leaves itself open to such a variety of interpretations.

  8. Anonymous9:33 AM

    I forgot to mention some other classics from the 90's . . .

    Goodfellas and Casino

    How could I forget Marty?

    Chris Johnson

  9. Fantastic analysis, John. I studied Eyes Wide Shut in my film class "Four American Directors" and really grew an appreciation for it because of that. The first time I watched it in high school, I hated it. I didn't understand it and didn't understand film in general. That was a long time ago, however, and I now recognize all of Eyes Wide Shut's strengths.

    Another way to read the film is through the lens of Celebrity, embracing the external conflicts of Cruise and Kidman, who would separate soon after the film's release and be divorced a year later. It sets a subtext in the film that is specific to the relationship of its stars as well expandable to all people in the leisure class.