Eyes Wide Shut
Eyes Wide Shut

USA/UK, 1999. Rated R. 159 minutes.

Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Sky Dumont, Todd Field, Vinessa Shaw, Thomas Gibson, Rade Sherbedgia, Alan Cumming, Julienne Davis, Leelee Sobieski
Writers: Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael based loosely on Traumnovelle, by Arthur Schnitzler
Music: Jocelyn Pook
Cinematographer: Larry Smith
Stanley Kubrick
Director: Stanley Kubrick


Grade: A- Review by Carlo Cavagna

Note: The review contains no spoilers. The analysis contains spoilers and is intended for readers who have already seen the movie.


A dreamlike, slow-paced sucker-punch to the mind, Eyes Wide Shut is in many ways a typical Stanley Kubrick film. Lush but detached cinematography, fantasy blurred with reality, leisurely narrative, a protagonist driven to the edge of dementia–all are hallmarks of Kubrick's work, and, like in so many other Kubrick films, the moments of brilliance in Eyes Wide Shut more than make up for the times Kubrick loses his way.

Eyes Wide Shut concerns a privileged doctor, Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), and his journey through a seamy underworld of illicit sex and crime. When Harford’s wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) confesses to having fantasies about other men, Harford begins to question things he once took for granted, like Alice’s loyalty and love, and women’s attitudes in general toward sex. Driven to seek answers to these questions, Harford becomes obsessed with lust and carnality.

Eyes Wide Shut is best described as an intellectual art film. The advertising hype is that Eyes Wide Shut is an erotic thriller replete with steamy sex. The truth is that, although there is plenty of sex and nudity, very little of it is erotic. For this reason, the word of mouth on Eyes Wide Shut has been terrible. Indeed, if you’re looking for escapist entertainment, you won't find it here. But if you’re willing to keep your mind wide open, you may be richly rewarded. Like many other people, I walked out of this movie disoriented and unsure of what to think. I didn’t know whether Kubrick’s swan song was a masterpiece or a pretentious mess. But I couldn’t get the movie out of my head for days. The more I assimilated it, the more I realized that everything in the film, even elements that at first seem clumsy or flawed, is in fact meticulously planned. Everything serves a purpose. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman

Eyes Wide Shut may be Kubrick’s most intensely personal film, and thus your enjoyment of the film will depend on your ability to relate to Kubrick’s thoughts and feelings. Kubrick’s notions about sex have been accused of being quaint and out-of-date. Perhaps. Eyes Wide Shut is certainly not a modern film (it would have been far more effective had it been set before the sexual revolution), but the sexual stereotypes it explores continue to exist today. That being said, Eyes Wide Shut does have problems, particularly with narrative flow. Rather than one event leading smoothly and logically to the next, the story drifts fitfully to its abrupt conclusion. Many audiences have found the movie to be boring as a result.

There has been much publicity surrounding the alteration of an orgy scene in the U.S. version of Eyes Wide Shut, during which couples having sex are obscured by digitally inserted figures. The digital manipulation should be patently obvious even to viewers who do not know to look for it. The figures are too obviously placed in strategic positions, and Dr. Harford, from whose point of view the scene is shot, makes no effort to see past the obstructions–a big clue that they’re not supposed to be there. Eyes Wide Shut would have earned an NC-17 rating without the digital changes. Meanwhile, if those same couples were shown chopping each other to small pieces with large machetes, the movie would have had no trouble earning an R rating. Our society’s taboos are frighteningly misplaced.

It’s interesting how, in its uneven brilliance, Eyes Wide Shut is similar to another recent movie by a reclusive eccentric not heard from in years, The Thin Red Line. Whereas the brilliant moments in The Thin Red Line were few and far between, and the film was largely incoherent, Eyes Wide Shut comes much closer to being a masterpiece. Though it probably is not, sometimes you feel like you are watching one. That's worth the price of admission.


Analysis (contains spoilers)  

I hope I don’t offend the gods of cinema by pointing out that [the] somber control-freak orgy, as perversely spellbinding as it is, isn’t really sexy.
–Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
Stanley Kubrick's 13th and last film is...empty of heat.... Frankly, it's the dullest orgy ever seen.
–Stephen Hunter, The Washington Post
It's shocking only in its banality, impotence and utter lack of heat–this, despite months of media blab about how daring and outrageous the last film by the late Stanley Kubrick would be.
–Rod Dreher, The New York Post
WHAT A WASTE OF MY TIME! It was not entertainment, and I came out of the film, thinking that I had been hoodwinked in the worst way, by the media, and the marketing idiots for this piece of  ****.
–anonymous poster, on Entertainment Weekly’s Movie Boards
It SUCKED - BIG TIME. It was laughable.... Sexiest movie ever–are they serious?
–anonymous poster, on Entertainment Weekly’s Movie Boards
Owen Gleiberman, Stephen Hunter, and Rod Dreher are not alone in having completely missed the point of Eyes Wide Shut. Drawn in by the advertising, audiences all over the United States were expecting to see some sort of racy thriller. They were disappointed. Over the summer, interactive movie web sites all over the internet, such as Entertainment Weekly's Movie Boards, were replete with negative, even hostile, opinions.

Some of the criticisms leveled at Eyes Wide Shut are not unfair. Yes, Eyes Wide Shut is long, and like many Kubrick films, sometimes exasperatingly slow. Yes, Eyes Wide Shut is unrealistic, perhaps ridiculously so. As in other movies, Kubrick doesn’t make much of a distinction between the real and the surreal, freely mixing both into his narrative. In his explorations of psychological truths, Kubrick has rarely seen the need to limit himself to what can be considered “realistic.”

And yes, Kubrick is a little out of touch with contemporary mores and attitudes. The idea that one's husband or wife may have fantasies about other people is hardly a shocker nowadays. On the other hand, the view Harford expresses to his wife before her rambling confession, that women are less likely to be unfaithful than men because women only feel lust as a function of love and commitment, is still a pervasive notion. Indeed, Dr. Drew (“a board-certified physician and an addiction medicine specialist!”) makes this argument nightly on MTV’s popular Loveline and on the eponymous syndicated radio show, suggesting that any women deviating from the pattern are dysfunctional and in need of therapy.

Let’s set aside the expectations created by the advertising and investigate Kubrick’s final work more closely. Let’s not assume that Kubrick intended simply to make a sexy movie. Alice comments that “one night, or even one lifetime, cannot reveal the truth.” In the case of Eyes Wide Shut, one cursory viewing is not enough to reveal all the layers of meaning. Eyes Wide Shut is not just about sex and obsession. Rather, Kubrick studies the potential destructiveness of the ennui that can permeate a marriage after nine years. He argues that psychological unfaithfulness can be just as devastating as literal (physical) unfaithfulness. And in the end, he comes down on the side of family, commitment, and monogamy. Nicole Kidman as Alice Harford

Enlightened as much of contemporary society is about sexuality, people know that sexual desire for other people doesn’t stop with marriage. Even fundamentalist Christians recognize this; in fact, they even have a word for it: “temptation.” In a healthy marriage, of course, those sexual impulses become unimportant and not worth pursuing. That doesn’t mean that they don’t continue to exist. “I may be married, but I’m not dead,” as the saying goes. So it is not in itself remarkable that Alice has a fantasy about another man. What upsets Harford, and what would be upsetting to most men in his place, is not just that Alice has harbored a secret desire for a stranger; rather, it is how she confesses it, in excruciating detail, and making it perfectly clear that she was ready to sacrifice her entire marriage if the sexual interest had been mutual. Most people can relate to how disturbing the mental image of one's lover with someone else can be.

Moreover, Alice’s confession challenges all of Harford’s assumptions about women. To Harford, Alice’s willingness to throw herself into another man’s arms is a betrayal, because women are supposed to experience lust only in the context of a committed relationship. Aren't they? Men, on the other hand, are biologically different. Their lust outside of a relationship is insignificant and excusable. It has nothing to do with love. Or so many men believe.

It’s been said that it’s ludicrous how every woman (and one man) Harford meets displays sexual interest in him. This strains the story’s credibility, but Kubrick probably cast Tom Cruise as Harford very intentionally–because it’s at least somewhat believable that women would throw themselves at him. Also, it's possible that the women’s reactions to Harford on this particular night are not unusual. Perhaps Harford is only now noticing how women respond to him, or maybe he is for the first time seeing their behavior in a different light. It dawns on Harford that none of these women, not even the hookers, are so different from his wife. In fact, one of them, Marion (Marie Richardson) is almost exactly like Alice–a woman in a committed and loving relationship, engaged to be married–and yet willing to succumb to her desire no matter what the cost. Tom Cruise as Bill Harford

To Harford, as to many men, women are categorized as either Madonnas or whores. Alice, the doting wife, personifies all that is good in women, whereas the two models who flirt with him at Victor Ziegler’s party embody the whores. The Madonnas are the women you love and respect; the whores are the women you screw and forget about in the morning. But Harford makes an astonishing discovery during his night of flirtation with debauchery. The Madonnas have suppressed desires that are surprisingly carnal, and the whores are terrifyingly human.

Harford’s journey of discovery begins when Ziegler (Sidney Pollack) asks him to treat a prostitute for a drug overdose. Without his medical tools, Harford must revive her by gently shaking her and calling her name. Unable to treat the flawless naked body lying in front of him, Harford must reach out to the woman’s soul in order to save her. Harford probably never has had a prostitute among his high society clientele, but there she is, as human and vulnerable as anybody else–in fact, more so. Perhaps Harford has never before seen a woman like her as a victim. In contrast, Ziegler’s callousness is chilling–he is only concerned about the inconvenience of having a dead hooker in his house. Later, Ziegler casually refers to her as “you know, the girl with the nice tits,” objectifying her even after death. He does not see her as a person, nor does he care to try.

Later, Alice’s and Marion’s confessions send Harford out into the streets in a state of confusion. His night then becomes a tour of objectified women, from Domino (Vinessa Shaw), an uncommonly beautiful streetwalker, to an underage girl (Leelee Sobieski) being pimped by her father (Rade Serbedzija) at the costume shop, and finally to the naked, faceless women at the center of the bizarre ritualistic sex in the private club, in which they are used by faceless men for the entertainment of other faceless men. Sidney Pollack as Victor Ziegler

The surreal orgy has been a lighting rod for the movie’s detractors. Apparently its transgression is that it is misogynist and absurd. To those who complain that the scene is sexist, I say, “Exactly!” It cannot be taken at face value. It is a metaphor for total masculine control over sexuality and an extreme expression of the basic subconscious attitude of many men toward women. The orgy’s male participants are New York’s elite–men with power and money–and the women are high-class prostitutes. The men have used their power and money to create the ultimate male fantasy–a environment where subservient females are reduced to sexual instruments. The orgy may not be the average man’s literal fantasy, but it is an extension of the traditional male outlook toward women and sexuality. As such, Kubrick did not intend for the orgy to arouse us. Kubrick intended to horrify us.

The critics are right: Eyes Wide Shut isn’t erotic at all. With the exception of the flirting at Ziegler’s party early in the movie, the film's depiction of sexuality is downright macabre. The women aren’t sensual and desirable; they are walking corpses. Used and casually discarded, they die brutally, unmourned. And yet, the women are more human than the men. All of them–the wives and the whores–have emotions and desires stifled in a cold, male-dominated world. Kubrick strips away the allure of men’s sex fantasies and shows the stark truth underneath. Similarly, when Harford learns that many of the orgy’s participants are the same people who were at Ziegler’s Christmas party, Kubrick is once again saying that a harsh reality lurks underneath everything we think we know.

The orgy is a revelation to Dr. Harford, but not the one he expects. Instead of liberation and pleasure, he finds confinement and pain. Even with the opportunity to have sex with a beautiful woman with no strings attached, he seeks her identity. An anonymous sexual tryst is not really what Dr. Harford is looking for. Todd Field as Nick Nightingale

The next day, after desperate attempts to discover the fates of the piano player Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) or the woman who interceded on his behalf at the orgy, Harford returns to Domino’s apartment. It is an attempt to return to a sexual situation where he is in control. He is looking for reassurance after his wife’s confession and his experience at the mansion. What he finds instead, when he learns that Domino is HIV-positive, is another brush with death, another example of the victimization of women, and another demonstration that what meets the eye doesn’t necessarily comport with the reality underneath. Domino is the perfect sex partner, willing and beautiful... or is she?

Harford’s attitudes toward women have nearly made him a victim, too. A victim of an unfaithful wife, a victim of HIV, a victim of an unknown fate at the orgy. Like the women he meets, Dr. Harford is himself objectified by those who throw themselves at him or take his money. Repeatedly opening his wallet, Harford assumes that every human interaction is a transaction and that all people have their price. He dismisses the god-like image that doctors have, and yet he uses that image when it’s convenient. He keeps flashing his medical credentials to get what he wants, to the point of absurdity. But by the end of his journey, Harford has seen the results of treating people like commodities to be used or bartered.

When Harford returns home to find Alice with the mask from his costume, he is unveiled. His horror at having risked everything that he loved for the sake of a prurient diversion is devastating. He does not lie, however. He confesses and asks Alice for her forgiveness, who earlier has confessed a dream that parallels Harford's journey. Now, they can continue with their marriage, without any masks, with their eyes wide open. Their newly-found knowledge may be painful, but their marriage, Kubrick suggests in the abruptly truncated final scene, will in the long run be made stronger.
The Big Picture
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Eyes Wide Shut is a largely visual work. The languid scenes at Ziegler’s party float along sensuously. The orgy, except for its post-hoc digital fig leaves, is an eerie visual masterpiece, with its monstrously carnal masks and garish colors. Every shot is painstakingly composed. Even the street signs comment on the story–one on the back exit of the jazz club where Harford meets Nightingale reads “All Exits Are Final.” The primary function of language is to enhance a mood. The words are frequently simple and repetitive, and yet musical, like Hal’s cadences in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Eyes Wide Shut, Harford speaks deliberately, often repeating himself. He is in a daze, waking up from a lifetime of comfortable assumptions. The stilted dialogue adds to the feeling of confinement and disquiet.

Tragically, Eyes Wide Shut does have an Achilles heel. Functioning almost exclusively on the visual and emotional level means that Eyes Wide Shut is not plot-driven. This is not necessarily a problem per se (see, e.g., Wings of Desire), but in Eyes Wide Shut the narrative doesn’t flow smoothly or coherently. It stops and starts; it meanders; it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Because Kubrick loses the narrative thread sometimes, Harford’s psychological breakdown is not presented as powerfully and cohesively as it could be. Instead of one event propelling him to the next, Harford’s activities seem random. He wanders around, and things happen to him.

The film’s narrative problems might not have existed had Kubrick not died. The movie is touted as Kubrick’s “final” cut, but Kubrick had a habit of whittling away at a film until days before its premiere. It’s entirely possible–even likely–that Kubrick would have removed another ten or fifteen minutes of footage, which might have improved the flow. But part of the blame must also go to Tom Cruise. While Nicole Kidman is brilliant, hers is only a supporting role, and Cruise turns in a performance that is barely adequate. He is by no means a terrible actor, but he’s not a sufficiently nuanced performer for this role. He can only show Harford's inner turbulence in the broadest way.

I cannot shake the impression that Kubrick has played a huge joke on us all. Kubrick, who had final say in all the marketing and promotion of the film, advertised Eyes Wide Shut as a seductive thriller. One of the trailers he submitted to the studio consisted only of a long shot of Cruise and Kidman semi-clothed and kissing, with Kidman staring at herself in the mirror all the while. Kubrick knew what would draw audiences to his movie–exactly the same things that draw Harford deeper into his exploration of forbidden sex, the orgy in particular. The voyeur within us. The promise of illicit licentiousness. And Kubrick delivers on his promises. But, instead of being titillated, audiences were left angry and confused. Just like Harford. A powerful way to make a point, wouldn’t you say? Somewhere, Kubrick is laughing from beyond the grave.

Review © September 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Warner Bros.

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