Eyes Wide Shut
- rated - HOT! HOT! HOT!
Kubrick did a Bad Bad Thing
It is really very difficult to review Eyes Wide Shut, as a film in
isolation, in the light of Stanley Kubrick's death. Because of
Kubrick's death, Eyes Wide Shut, is not just his latest film, or his
first film for 12 years, but it's his Last Film. It seems likely
Kubrick knew that it would be his last film, and made the film as a
Last Film. So I think it is appropriate to take that into account in a
What does that mean? First, it means putting the film into the context
of the director's oeuvre - which is something I'd normally do anyway.
Then, it means looking more closely at the philosophy behind the film,
and the relationship of the film's philosophy with its style. It also
means looking closely at what Kubrick is trying to tell us. But, in
addition to all that, the film has to stand on its own as a work of
art. Kubrick's death doesn't allow us to make excuses for the film's
Having said all that - and knowing this film has split audiences down
the middle - I should also say straight off that I really liked Eyes
Wide Shut, for many reasons. But I can also understand why many people
didn't like it at all, and many found it just ludicrous, or
embarrassing. It's not an easy film to like, at least on a first
viewing, and for that reason, I went back for another look.
I should also state up front that Kubrick is one of my favourite
directors. I love his work because he combines a magnificent eye with
superb technical mastery, obsessive attention to detail, and an
enormous intellect. With Scorsese, I'd say he's one of the last of the
great auteurs. And so when I watch one of his films, I'm watching for
more than I might be in another film. And here I found it.
On my first viewing, I found Stanley Kubrick still exploring his old
obsessions: the rational man in an irrational world, the inability of
man to control his surroundings, including the people around him. I
also found the astonishing visuals, the virtuoso steadicam shots where
the camera just glides, drawing us into the action behind the
protagonists, the use of bright, primary colours that make New York
seem like a fairground (more on this later), and above all the achingly
beautiful use of light. There's a Christmas tree spangled with party
lights in every house or apartment or cafe or shop in the film - except
for Somerset, the scene of the orgy. There's a ballroom scene (Kubrick
loved ballroom scenes) where the camera waltzes, doing 360º turns
before mirrors. And there's plenty of Kubrick's signature use of
uplighting on faces (cf Dave Bowman in the pod, talking to Hal),
Another of Kubrick's obsessions - the duality of man - the two faces,
often the good and the bad, and often represented by masks, is also
played out here in a most formal way - at the masked orgy! I also found
Kubrick playing with opposites - opposites which relate to his other
obsessions - life, death and the nature of the flesh. He shows us the
contrasts of life & death, body & mind, work & play,
identity & disguise, games & responsibility, dreams &
reality, consciousness & unconsciousness, rationality &
emotion, the sacred & the profane, sex & love, sex & death.
On a first viewing, too, I found that Nicole and Tom didn't work as
well together as I'd thought they would. I found Nicole's performance
extremely mannered - well done technically, but without truth. In
contrast, I found Tom's performance, in a difficult role that is mainly
reactive, to be marvellous: subtle, nuanced, well-judged, underplayed,
and extremely effective. He plays a man walking from a comfortable
reality, through a dream, into a nightmare, and then back into reality,
with such a slow burn that when the emotion comes it is overwhelming.
I'd give it an Academy Award!
But on a second viewing, all became miraculously clear. Kubrick did a
bad bad thing. He made a soap opera! As I listened to all those long
pauses, watched Nicole's excruciating scene as an extremely tipsy
flirt, saw Sky Dumont's exquisite parody of the Latin Lover (Rossano
Brazzi by way of Bela Lugosi?), and heard everyone repeat lines ad
nauseam (eg: Sally, of her flatmate Domino:"She went away" Dr Bill:
"She went away?"). It's pure Dallas! Add to that the fact that I happen
to know that Kubrick was a big fan of The Eastenders, and there you
have it. Stanley made a soap opera, but dressed it up as a masterpiece!
When you think about it, it makes sense. Stanley had made most every
kind of movie there is: war movie, caper movie, horror movie,
historical epic, costume drama, comedy, sci fi, literary adaptation.
He'd never done TV. He'd never done soap. Could it be that he's decided
that the best way to tell a story about sex, love, fidelity and fear
was by means of the TV soap?
The source material for Eyes Wide Shut , Arthur Schnitzler's
Traumnovelle ("Dream Story"), was written in 1926 and set in turn of
the century Vienna. The novel was heavily influenced by the teachings
of Sigmund Freud, especially about the connection between sex and
dreams. As interpreted by Kubrick, it's fundamentally a story about the
workings of fear on the mind - Dr Bill Harford's mind, to be precise,
as he acts on the fears he has about his wife's imagined infidelity.
Although "acts" is probably too strong a word for what Bill Harford
goes through on the night in question. He is more "acted upon" than
"acting". It's as if he walking through a dream (with eyes wide shut).
At its core, the film has less to do with physical sex than it has sex
in the mind.
These two ideas (TV soap, sex of the mind) might explain some of the
things that people have found disturbing or disappointing about the
film: why is the orgy scene so peculiar? Why isn't it "sexy"? Why don't
Tom and Nicole get down to it? Why does everyone speak so slowly and
agonise over every thought? Why does Nicole overdo the drunk act, in a
kind of Jack Nicholson imitation? Why does every band play such cornily
"appropriate" love songs ("I'm in the Mood for Love," "Strangers in the
Night")? Why does the waitress in the café act like she's in
Days of Our Lives? Why is Sydney Pollack's exposition so weird in his
final speech (remember how he goes on and on about "fakes", "charades",
and "cutting the bullshit")? It's the style of a TV soap opera. Pollack
even gives us a lesson that's the very essence of soap opera: "Life
goes on - until it doesn't". Surely today's TV soap operas are one of
the ways that people explore emotional issues, and questions of sex in
Throughout his career, Kubrick made films which examined issues of
mortality, and the frailty of the flesh. In Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick
keeps drawing our attention to the difference between the physical body
(unconscious after a drug overdose, dead in a bed, stylised in the orgy
scenes, joylessly coupling in sex acts, undressed in the doctor's
surgery, and finally dead in the morgue) and the reality of a
relationship which exists on more than just a physical level: in the
real day-to-day world, and in the mind.
As to the performances, on a second viewing there's much more to them
than met the eyes the first time. Although Nicole Kidman's physicality
still seem exaggerated, there's quite a lot to admire, and there's more
subtlety there as well. The scene where she wakes from her dream is
extremely startling. And when she describes her imagined infidelity
with the naval officer, and says "At that moment my love for you was
both tender and sad", I unexpectedly burst into tears.
My good impressions of Cruise's performance only improved on a second
viewing. When Tom leaves to visit the dying man's daughter, his face,
uplit in the taxi, is a revelation of emotion and insecurity. And when
he finally breaks down, its as honest a moment as you could wish for.
There's so much more to say about this film: I haven't even mentioned
Kubrick's little jokes: just about everyone who meets Tom Cruise either
falls in love with him or propositions him, but nothing is ever
consummated. Tom is teased about his ambiguous sexuality in two scenes,
but he deadpans it. There's also the question of whether Kubrick had
actually finished the film at the time of his death. Some informed
commentators have pointed out that Warner Brothers head Terry Semel had
reassured everyone that "The film is totally finished" apart from "a
few colour corrections" and "some technical things". "A few technical
things" could mean anything, and we know that Kubrick was obsessively
devoted to "technical things." The sound mix in a couple of scenes was
dreadful, there were a couple of strange jumpy cuts that seemed out of
place, and the looping done in the scene with the rowdy college kids
was atrocious. I can't believe Kubrick "passed" those.
That, of course, raises the spectre of a Kubrick film that's something
less than that. It's a shame that it should happen to his last film.
But in my opinion it is still a great piece of work from a master of
the cinema, and that is all that I could wish for.