Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director. I didn’t know who he was until after 1987, the year of his last release, Full Metal Jacket. So Eyes Wide Shut was the first and only Kubrick movie I’ve seen in regular release. Maybe my perception is biased, but Eyes Wide Shut is excellent.
At a ritzy party, Dr. Bill Harford and his wife Alice (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) mingle separately. Bill is approached by two models. They boldly flirt with the doctor, and he loves the attention. Alice is swept onto the dance floor by a debonair Hungarian blueblood who makes a pass at her. She too enjoys the attention and doesn’t entirely rebuff the come-on. Back at home, the two start making love, each having been turned on by events at the party. This is the famous scene from the trailers.
Their thoughts from the previous night have been gnawing at them, so the next night the two talk about sex, about fantasies, and about how sex is different for men and for women.
The talking turns into arguing. Alice, a little spacey from some marijuana, and angry from the fight, decides to tell Bill her most secret fantasy. Once, on vacation, she made eye contact with a naval officer. In that moment, she fell in love — not love, but lust — with the stranger. She had half hoped, half feared, that they could see each other again, that they could meet, that they could make love. She tells Bill, with a touch of provocation, “I was willing to give up everything for one night”.
Their argument is interrupted — which proves to be as frustrating as being interrupted during sex — with a phone call. One of Bill’s patients has died, and he has to go visit. The unfinished fight and his wife’s hurtful confession weigh heavy on his mind. After being propositioned by the grieving daughter of the patient, and harassed by some gay-bashers, he looks for some kind of sexual release, away from Alice.
He spends that night, and the next several days, touring the seamy, sexual underworld of New York in an angry, frustrated funk. Hookers, ritualistic orgies, and underage prostitutes become the norm, while visits to home, wife, and child start to seem unreal. But Bill is a newcomer to this sex-filled world and he can never quite consummate his desire. At every turn, fate, coincidence, or a false step keeps him unfulfilled and still searching....
Eyes Wide Shut is very well crafted. First off, the acting and direction were great. This was probably Tom Cruise’s most challenging role, and he rose to the occasion, mostly. There were times where I was not convinced he was a doctor, but his emotional control more than made up for it. His dip down into obsession was key, and he acted the part well.
Kidman was equally good in a surprisingly small role, particularly during their fight and their reconciliation. During the fight, Alice doesn’t have the words to clearly tell Bill what she wants him to know. Kidman is able to convincingly and concisely portray the earnest frustration of not being understood. Later, at the reconciliation, she is in the position of power, and Kidman handles this opposite situation just as well.
Also, the look of the film is outstanding. Kubrick uses a grainy film-stock throughout, which I can’t explain, except that it might have been a compromise for the sake of shooting in lower light (something Kubrick has done before, notably in Barry Lyndon). Many scenes are lit in rich, low, golden tones. One set — the party scene — is seemingly lit by thousands of tiny Christmas lights. Or maybe he did it to mask the scenes using digital effects. The look is consistent and not inappropriate, but I can’t say for sure why Kubrick chose it.
Also, the interior scenes are simply amazing to look at. I already mentioned the party scene lit by tiny lights. But the most impressive is the ritual before the orgy. A perfect circle of bright light illuminates a red-robed figure. Dozens of figures gather around the outside. Every figure is masked and robed in lush, rich, dark cloth. The first glimpse is shocking — not in a cheap, South Park way, but somehow disturbing to the core. And yet it grows on you, which might make it even more disturbing.
Kubrick’s cinematography (carried out by rookie cinematographer Larry Smith) and editing (by Nigel Galt, until now a sound editor) are deliberate and exact. One can see a sharp mind making just the right cut, to just the right angle, at just the right time.
A few examples come to mind: first, during the argument, Bill and Alice are shown from mostly head-on. But when Alice drops her conversational bomb, the angle moves to the side — we are now outsiders looking in, instead of intimate confidantes.
Later, after a very long sequence at the dark, exotic masquerade/orgy, Kubrick and Galt cut directly to Bill entering his apartment. The stark, sharp contrast in settings makes “home” seem so boring, so banal. It tells us exactly how Bill must have felt coming back to “reality” after seeing a titillating glimpse of a more sexually exotic world.
Finally, music plays an important part of the experience, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey. In particular, a sad, ominous 2-note theme (Jocelyn Pook scored the movie) is played slowly on a piano over Bill’s wanderings through the New York underworld. It is like a slower, sadder version of John Carpenter’s theme to Halloween. It adds the final dimension to a cohesive, expressionist world.
Perhaps the best thing about Eyes Wide Shut is its hopeful ending. In a way, Kubrick is like Dante. He is the guide on a journey through one particular circle of Hell, but he safely brings us back to where we started.
I’m sad that there will not be another Stanley Kubrick movie. Nobody else does so much, so well. Each movie is a masterpiece for a different reason. 2001 has an incredible look and painstaking detail. Barry Lyndon has unbelievable color, scope, and cinematography. Paths of Glory is a gut-wrenching human tragedy. And Eyes Wide Shut, well, it has a little bit of everything.
I really only got to see one new Kubrick movie, and that’s a great disappointment. But at least I finally got to see one. I hope another director comes along with such a high “batting average” (Kubrick’s worst film was probably Spartacus, which was still pretty darn good) but I won’t hold my breath. Stanley Kubrick, here’s to you.