Eyes Wide Shut

(Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)


The Guests

There was so much wild rumour and speculation surrounding the release of Stanley Kubrick’s last film that people imagined, before seeing it, that it contained just about everything and anything: pornography, transvestism, a glimpse into the private life of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, a sinister reflection of its maker’s supposed entrenched, solitary neuroses. Even more weirdly, once the movie appeared, a new myth began to circulate: that it was Kubrick’s incomprehensible testament, an obscure art movie beyond all decoding, a film setting out to trick and confound the viewer. Worst of all were the instant, curt, superior dismissals from critics high and low – primarily peddling the objection that the film is too long and too slow (compared to what, one wonders – James Cameron’s Titanic [1997]?).

All of this is nonsense – mania springing from an unfortunate, collective dependence upon pre-fed media hype (above the evidence of one’s own sense and responses), and a wheedling defensiveness in the face of something that is really new, serious and powerful. Eyes Wide Shut is a great film, a masterpiece. And it is also an extremely clear, lucid film, directly and candidly addressing intimate issues and experiences that belong to everyone.

There is nothing hidden in Eyes Wide Shut, no arcane symbolism to decipher, no allegory in sight. The film is about what it shows – a marriage, a moment of crisis in a relationship. It is all about what it means to live from day to day, dealing with one’s emotional, inner life. Simultaneously, it is about how the everyday opens onto a wider, deeper, more intense, more subterranean level of primal impulses – that stately, magnificent, strangely ‘old world’ parallel universe signalled by the grave waltz that starts and ends the film, inviting us into that "bleak and infinite ballroom of life" (Robert Nery) previously visited by Kubrick via the hero’s hallucinations in The Shining (1980).

Increasingly, with each further step, the real, everyday world meticulously constructed by Kubrick beckons towards a surreal dream-world: this is not New York we are seeing, for instance, but a purely fantasticated New York of the imagination (built in every detail, like Leos Carax‘s Pont-Neuf); and the story is not a contemporary, domestic fait divers but an uncanny ‘tale twice told’ – modern characters retracing the exact steps and speaking virtually the same lines written for their models in 1926 by Arthur Schnitzler in his novella “Dream Story” (now included in the Penguin edition of the Eyes Wide Shut screenplay).

The plot of Eyes Wide Shut is best discovered by an audience in its sinuous, hypnotic unfolding. Like most Kubrick narratives, it is deliberately sparse, almost minimal. As a very modern storyteller, Kubrick liked to spend time on tableaux, to linger with the consequences of an action or decision – and only when that tableau is exhausted does a striking plot move take his characters to another, newer level. This structure (used also by Chantal Akerman in her feature narratives, and Victor Erice) is clearest in Lolita (1961), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Eyes Wide Shut takes the form of a quasi-mythic journey into a modern underworld. William (Tom Cruise) and Alice (Nicole Kidman) are a reasonably happy middle-class couple with a child (whom, deliberately, we barely see). A ritzy party where both partners separately confront adulterous possibilities is followed by an intense bedroom confrontation in which Alice confesses to William her desire, once upon a time, for a stray man she spotted. For this man, she says, for this fleeting, erotic dream, she would have given up everything: William, their home, her career, their child.

William is understandably shaken by this revelation. Partly to recover, partly to seek revenge, he begins cruising bars and streets, and has random encounters, over the course of several days and nights. Serendipity leads him into strange places. He gradually becomes immersed in a bizarre, plush, libertine world – a neo-pagan realm of erotic ritual – from which he cannot easily extricate himself.

Although there are thriller and mystery elements in the storyline, these are almost incidental. Everything that happens in the plot has only one function: to impact upon the relationship between William and Alice. With an audacity characteristic of Kubrick, these main characters remain essentially separate for most of the film, engaged in two different kinds of trajectories or journeys: his happens out in the world, where dire, physical things happen; hers takes place mainly internally, in her heart and her dreams, as she sits, eats and sleeps at home.

Is this – as some have brusquely claimed – evidence enough of a crushing, patriarchal bias in this final film by an Old Master? Men are worldly and women are domestic; men work through their Iron John complexes in the sexual wilderness while women (who started the whole trouble, anyhow) wait home patiently for their guys’ teary return – is that all there is to Eyes Wide Shut? But Kubrick is being canny here, not sexist. Alice’s story, her voyage, matters every bit as much to the film as William’s. Such a finely wrought fiction as this cannot be adjudicated, like some grotesque parody of an equal opportunity arbitration case, by totting up respective running times for the hero’s and heroine’s on-screen representations (nor even the number of male gazes that power the ongoing intrigue). The script carefully retains the words Schnitzler gave his heroine when she refers, in the final scene, to multiple journeys: “Maybe, I think, we should be grateful … grateful that we’ve managed to survive all of our adventures, whether they were real or only a dream”. By keeping his main characters apart for long stretches of filmic time, Kubrick can also create heights of drama that are breathtaking and unforgettable whenever they do meet, at the mutual stations (always night-time bedroom scenes) along the paths of their respective journeys.

One might say that this bedroom, however rarely or abstractly glimpsed, is the inescapable locus classicus of Eyes Wide Shut, the site from which all journeys begin and where they end, the crucible where everyone’s troubles are formed, and possibly (hopefully) healed. I once heard sex described as "a piece of furniture that you don’t know where to put in your house". Kubrick captures this sensation with precision: sexual desire – particularly in the form of flirtation – is rendered both as delicious and natural but also uncomfortable, all-consuming, disruptive, impossible to accommodate within normal, everyday routines. Desire breaks out everywhere, unexpectedly, throughout – in the confession of a woman sitting by her dead father, or in the eyes of a young girl seemingly prostituted by her father (a vignette worthy of Buñuel‘s Belle de jour [1967]) – giving the film both its droll, quietly outrageous sense of wit and its mounting graph of tension and unease.

From its very first image – of Kidman casually disrobing – Eyes Wide Shut is a brilliant meditation on both the difficulty and the necessity of squaring sexual appetite with the mundane demands of daily existence. Like Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), it relentlessly, single-mindedly stalks the sensations and consequences of the libidinal life. In doing so, it quietly dismantles several taboos. At the core of the film’s meditation on sex is its depiction of bodies. Kubrick goes far beyond the innovations of Altman (Short Cuts, 1993) or Greenaway (Prospero’s Books, 1991), who devised clever ways of short-circuiting the conventionally erotic presentation of nudity. Their films accustomed us to the sight of naked people engaged in ordinary activities, like walking, arguing or eating. Kubrick walks an infinitely trickier tightrope. For him too, the body must be viewed in a matter-of-fact way – but never at the cost of entirely repressing or sublimating the erotic charge inherent in physical movement and display. Here, the simple device of making William a doctor dramatises this dilemma superbly – naked flesh is presented to him daily, and he adopts the appropriately ‘professional’, impersonal attitude towards it.

Yet William does not know how to respond to Alice’s badgering, confronting questions about whether he has erotic thoughts while dealing with his patients (or whether, in the same exchange, his patients have fantasies about him). And we have already seen, by that point, how his somewhat shady contact with the wealthy client Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) involves him in situations that thoroughly blur the line between professional and personal – even decadent – demands. (The casting of Cruise is inspired: William’s smooth, bedside manner meshes perfectly with the star’s nice-guy persona, but the unspoken confusions experienced by the character add layers of duplicity, defensiveness and desperation.)

In Eyes Wide Shut, bodies are shown in all their diverse states. There is the body at work, fatigued, asleep, engaged in the arduous tasks of child rearing, ravaged by illness, gracefully engaged in dance, mellowed by dope, energised by adrenalin. One of the film’s most astonishing and surprising moments involves a reference to AIDS. And there is – at key, chilling highpoints of the plot – the unavoidable presence of dead bodies, abruptly devoid of any eroticism, even of a perversely titillating kind.

Kubrick has often been discussed as a director who renews the centuries old tradition of grotesque art. His cinema marries the distortions and exaggerations of the grotesque idiom, its gross physicality – so influential upon disciples like the Coen brothers – to a philosophical sense of the inhuman. Like Stroheim and Aldrich before him, or Greenaway and Jeunet & Caro after him, Kubrick has often gone out of his way to present the human being as merely an animal, a machine, or a hulking mass of blood, bone and tissue – always subject to the withering, entropic forces of disease, madness, age, every kind of wear and tear. Barry Lyndon (1975) elaborated this vision (sometimes decried as determinist or, worse, behaviourist) in a detached, novelistic mode, and Full Metal Jacket (1987) took it to its logically bleak and misanthropic extreme: the human turned inhuman during wartime.

After that last chant for a dead end, Kubrick decided to return once again, with surprising compassion, to the dilemmas of human psychology and emotion – and, even less expectedly, to explore what Serge Daney once called the ‘adventure of the couple’ (most of his films are about communities formed in hot-house enclosures or through a serendipitous daisy-chain of mobile encounters). Eyes Wide Shut is Kubrick’s ‘scenes from a marriage’ (à la Ingmar Bergman), but its equal attention to the brute body as much as the romantic heart or the deluded mind creates a dramatic tension that brings it closer, at the end of cinema’s first millennium, to Catherine Breillat’s corrosive Romance (1999).

It is as if, for Kubrick, there are two extreme poles in daily life – to be completely absorbed by erotic desire, or to function in complete denial of it. These poles correspond – as in a Cassavetes film like Love Streams (1984) – to ‘night life’ and ‘day life’. Both these extreme states (erotic night and mundane day) are inevitable – because daily routines create a repressive, unsexy drudgery, at the same time stoking the antic engine of dissatisfied desire. Yet both states are equally sad, impossible, untenable. Living for nothing but fantasy and thrills is a trap, a delusion; and so is the effort to function without such fantasy.

Kubrick further associates these two extreme states – of the reality-principle and the pleasure-principle – with the gender divide carefully built into the narrative structure. While Alice is driven to distraction by desire and emotion (immortalised by her fulsomely narcissistic gaze into a mirror while “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” plays on the soundtrack – a fleeting incarnation of Alice as self-styled femme fatale), William is the real-world guy, who believes only what he can see, what he can touch and verify. Partly, the difference between them is one of attitude and behaviour: Alice speaks about her dreams and impulses, her torments and needs, while William is a far more evasive and occasionally dishonest creature – dishonest to himself as much as to his partner.

For a film so firmly fixed on matters of sex, it can seem to some surprisingly chaste, even prudish or moralistic. Although desire and sexual opportunity suffuse almost every scene, the plot is constructed on constant, sometimes comic, interruptions that block such possibilities. The film’s relative absence of torrid, sexual spectacle (even the orgy scene is rather formal) turns out to be its greatest trump card. Kubrick is after a deep, philosophical understanding of sex drives and sex acts, in all their complicated messiness, their strange mix of gravity and frivolity – sex as something both ephemeral in its pleasures and eternal in its consequences.

In the terms that the film itself suggests, it is a problem of squaring the world of dreams with the world of reality – of realising and coming to terms with the fact that fantasies can have devastating consequences on reality, even if not immediately acted upon; and that, conversely, a ‘realist’ life that does not countenance the oceanic force of fantasy and desire is a stunted, blinkered life. The ideal position – one that the Surrealists would have heartily approved – is to move through the everyday with ‘eyes wide shut’: that is, to see realities, grasp duties and responsibilities clearly, and yet at the same to be able to draw power and inspiration from the intoxicating realm of dreams. Eyes Wide Shut is, in its own special way, about the dream life of angels – as well as the dream life of devils. And – as Jonathan Rosenbaum reminds us in his Chicago Reader review of the film, via Delmore Schwartz via Yeats – in dreams begin responsibilities.

The film’s rigorous separation of its male and female story threads may suggest to some a despairing, fatalistic, nihilistic sense of an abyss between genders – and to some others, plain, bland proof of a sexist bias on the part of the storyteller. The simple but profound punchline of Kubrick’s vision comes when he finally brings William and Alice together. For it is only in their union – precisely in the imminent possibility of their physical, sexual consummation just beyond the last frames – that the dual worlds of airy desire and mundane reality, day life and night life, dreams and responsibilities, can be bridged, fused, brought mutually alive as (in André Breton’s phrase) ‘communicating vessels’.

In Eyes Wide Shut – as bald as it is to spell it out like this – sex (and sex within marriage, at that!) ultimately figures as a kind of sacred answer to William’s and Alice’s tormented prayers, to their labyrinthine questing; sex is what will redeem them and release them from the twin hells of her wild, unsatisfied desire and his peeved, jealous hunt for a piece of transgressive action. This ‘message’ is neither a conservative, romantic fantasy nor a crude, behaviourist prescription: on the contrary, it is a rare, wise vision of the constantly threatened but absolutely essential interdependence between love and sex, soul and body, appetite and care, shared experience and existential solitude, in any relationship that manages to work, to matter and to last.

Kubrick reached the peak of his art and craft with this film. Although his style is often celebrated (and imitated) for its show-off, bravura displays, Eyes Wide Shut reveals once and for all Kubrick’s deeper kinship with subtle, unostentatious masters like Buñuel and Cronenberg. There are almost no crazy angles, dazzling long takes or montage flurries. Even the eclectic musical selections for which he is famous – here taking in everything from the avant-garde atonalities of Ligeti to the creepy, softly sung blues of Chris Isaak – are largely unobtrusive, though no less effective. Only some bold flashes and planes of colour – as in the cool wall of blue behind Kidman as she lingers before her bathroom – signal the hidden, expressionist depths of the tale.

In Eyes Wide Shut, as in a Buñuel classic like Tristana (1970), what really registers for the viewer are the subtle but profound ‘passages’ for the characters (especially William) from scene to scene, or tableau to tableau. In this regard, few movies have clocked the passing of time – the lived sensations of morning and night, dawn and dusk, with their attendant poetic associations of melancholic loss or hopeful renewal – with such detailed, crisp, loving attention.

The American philosopher Stanley Cavell once wrote a book called Pursuits of Happiness about what he calls the comedies of remarriage in American cinema – those screwball romances like Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) or Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942), in which feisty couples (invariably childless) put their marriages and relationships on hold for a while, with the partners wandering off on separate, madcap adventures. These films were not (as Cavell admits) necessarily about literal divorce and remarriage, but they were always about putting a relationship, grown comfortable over time, to the test – running a gauntlet in which the nature and limits of a mutual commitment were explored and sometimes redefined. Comedies of remarriage are about the rekindling of a deep passion, the revitalisation of a reciprocal, energetic bond, the refinding of (in a Freudian sense) the most precious ‘loved object’.

Kubrick revitalises a much less well recognised and explored territory: the drama of remarriage, a loose genre the lofty milestones of which must include Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy (1953). The affirmation of a symbolic remarriage carries moral authority in Murnau, and is charged by a neo-Romantic, surrealist thrill in Vigo. Post WW2, such an affirmation becomes ambiguous or equivocal in Rossellini; and by the time of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), refinding (or remaking) one’s lost love has taken on fully Gothic tints of alienation and delusion. One of Kubrick’s favourite films, Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance (1981), is a black, mercilessly inverted screwball comedy about a relationship that keeps breaking up and coming back together, seemingly only so that the man can renew ever more fiercely the paranoid, near-psychotic haranguing of his defeated, masochistic partner.

Kubrick is aware of all these facets of the drama of remarriage; his film briskly reflects and reworks all the generic possibilities. His choice of sources and collaborators for this difficult, thrilling task is apt and shrewd. Through Schnitzler (La Ronde, 1950, Liebelei, 1932) comes a powerful reference to Max Ophüls, with whom Kubrick was often compared in the ’50s and ’60s (especially in relation to his fluid camera style) – and what is the characteristic arc of Ophülsian tragedy, if not the desperate, poignant holding out of a possible relationship renewal, that then ends only in mocking complacency (Le Plaisir, 1951), mutual disconnection and misunderstanding (Letter From an Unknown Woman, 1948), or death (Madame De …, 1953)? Through co-writer Frederic Raphael, who scripted Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road (1966), comes the contemporary history of attempts at this strange, phantom genre of remarriage drama – including, notably, Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983), Peter Weir’s Fearless (1993) and Cameron’s The Abyss (1989).

The final, magnificent scene of Eyes Wide Shut – for me, the finest achievement in the entire Kubrick canon – could have come, at least in its set-up, straight from a classic screwball comedy. Kubrick rearranges the final elements of Schnitzler’s tale in a bold and significant way here. In the novella, the couple come to the end of their tell-all discussion during the night, fall asleep, and then awake to a new, ordinary day – thus ending the story just as it began, but with (one presumes) the aura of a mutual enlightenment. Kubrick’s version is less neat and symmetrical, more surprising. He elides the all-night confession (ensuring a lingering doubt as to exactly what, or how much, William really confesses), and he deprives his characters of the fleeting salvation of slumber. Instead, he gives them a rude, uncomfortable task: they have to pull themselves together and take their demanding daughter out for Christmas shopping.

So William and Alice go strolling, first thing in the morning, in a large department store, their daughter gaily, greedily skipping among the toys. The whole world goes about its ritual business around them: this is the agonising, disconcerting end of their journey, when what is most private and intimate collides with what is most public and invasive. In their bodies, their postures, their strained eyes and evasive gestures, we see the tension between the pair that must be resolved now, or never.

In a Lubitsch film like The Shop Around the Corner (1940), relief would come with a happy, liberating play of words, and an exchange of mutual, understanding glances; here, where the thick, dramatic atmosphere is closer to the domestic apocalypse signalled in the final scene of Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970), the couple must, once and for all, face the implications of everything they have discussed, confessed, felt and suffered through the long, preceding night.

It’s a simple scene, simply shot: in the middle of this public crowd, Alice and William stop, at last turn to each other, and speak. It is the depth and the shock of what they say – about dreams and realities, desires and appetites, problems and solutions – that clinches Eyes Wide Shut for me as the cinema’s greatest drama of remarriage.

MORE Kubrick: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Full Metal Jacket

© Adrian Martin September 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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