Eyes Wide Shut in Pursuit of Sexual Understanding

Eyes Wide Shut. 1999. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick & Frederic Raphael; inspired by Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler.
Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Rade Sherbedgia, Todd Field, Vinessa Shaw, Sky du Mont, Fay Masterson, Leelee Sobieski, & Thomas Gibson. Warner Bros. Pictures/Stanley Kubrick Productions.
Rated R. 159 minutes.

Stanley Kubrick is one of the best directors to have ever lived, certainly if we’re considering American directors. It’s hard for me to choose my favourite film out of his filmography. Although, I do absolutely prefer some over others. I believe 2001: A Space Odyssey is his best work, yet my all-time favourite is Dr. Strangelove; Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, followed by A Clockwork Orange.
And right alongside those two in my top three sits Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s final film. Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, known in English as Dream Story, Kubrick and writer Frederic Raphael take us through the strained relationship of a married couple, as the husband finds his way down into the eerie underbelly of the upper crust. All those awesome Kubrick techniques we’ve come to know and love are here: long and luscious tracking shots, dreamy fades between most scenes, an almost uncanny ability for perfectly composed frames, and much more. When you add in two solid actors such as Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (the former is undeniably crazy yet a talented performer), a Kubrick picture can only get better. Such is the case with this masterpiece.
Not everyone loves this film as much as I do, and many deride it as a lesser work near the end of a great director’s life and career. Me, I believe Kubrick left life having bestowed us with one last work of tantalizing art.
I’m always intrigued by real life couples willing to act in a film together, especially when it comes to a film such as this one, its themes, the wild subject matter. There are a few incredibly raw moments. For instance, early on when Bill and Alice are arguing after smoking pot together she starts laughing at him; the look Cruise gives his wife, his real wife, is a genuine look of an open wound hurt. Maybe being husband and wife in reality gives actors a further depth they can reach in thinking of what it might be like if their characters lives were actually their lives. That entire scene where Alice reveals her fleeting, though thoroughly shocking feelings about a Navy man she saw during a vacation at Cape Cod is, in my mind, a master class in acting. Kidman and Cruise are both in top form. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the writing from Kubrick and Raphael is downright compelling. Whereas the plot of the film gets much weirder, and wilder, these personal moments are what the entire picture is all about.
Aside from acting this film is built upon Kubrick and his eye for gorgeous shots, the way those shots are composed from framing to the actual look of the sets and everything in between. More than that, the atmosphere and tone of Eyes Wide Shut is so impressive. The cinematography of Larry Smith, who’d been a gaffer on Barry Lyndon and The Shining (later working with Kubrick-lover Nicolas Winding Refn), uses all natural lighting, as the director did not want to use studio lighting. So the visual look is beautiful and interesting, a combination of natural light sources and push processing (a developing process which works on the actual sensitivity of the film itself). The processing makes all the colours much more intense. Couple that with some of the interesting lighting Smith resorts to in order to capture many scenes and it makes for a lot of strange, tinted shots with hues of neon, blue light washing through windows, and lots of deep shadows amongst the vibrantly coloured rooms. On top of the cinematography and the expert directorial choices of Kubrick is the score. Kubrick was the master of musical choices, he opted to use such fascinating stuff to flesh out his efforts. Here, there’s original music from Jocelyn Pook, the stuff we hear as Bill ends up confronting the masked crowd, that ominous piano and other weird sounds which end up recurring. Also, as usual, Kubrick employs the use of classical pieces, which all work impeccably for where they’re placed. Often I feel as a director he was able to mimic the feel and flow of ballet. Never more so than in this film, fitting enough his last. This is most clear in those scenes where the Steadicam takes us through the large, mysterious cult mansion where they’ve all gathered, the various rooms, as if we’re moving around a stage. All together, the elements of this movie work so well together in a gorgeous, strange unison.
Eyes Wide Shut is a story of sexual relationships, both in and out of marriage. Of course we’re framed by the marriage of the Harfords. However, the entire journey Bill finds himself on over the course of that one especially wild evening takes him out of the realm of marriage, into that vast, mysterious sea of sex with faceless people. In a way, you can see it as Alice has a face: she is his wife, the mother of his child, the love of his life, his best friend. Many, many things. We know her, we see her perfectly, flaws and all. She represents, obviously, the married life. Then there’s the cult, all those people under the hoods and masks and costumes. They are the deep unknown of bachelorhood, which Bill confronts. They are the faceless mass of people only looking for sex, anonymity in their relationships, without feeling and without responsibility or any of that which marriage brings. Those lavish, secretive parties – never in the same place twice, their piano player given an address where to head an hour prior, so on – are representative of how the ultimate bachelor sees their lifestyle, as better than anything marriage offers. The cult itself is closed off, they do all in their power to keep others from getting in because their parties are just way too interesting for outsiders; certainly for a married doctor.
Furthermore, the men in this orgy cult are the basest form of men, guys like Ziegler (Pollack) – one minute he stands with his wife downstairs hosting the big party and the next minute is upstairs having sex with a girl that proceeds to nearly overdose on a speedball. The types which let people die, or worse, then cover things up, all in the name of power and pleasure and control. Whereas to the deceptive, lusty man marriage is a loss of control, to a caring man marriage is sharing control; something Bill seems to eventually realize, one way or another. To the people that belong to this high society sex cult, marriage is a loss of freedom. So a large part of this story, if not the majority, concerns Bill effectively struggling with his faithfulness. The catalyst is the revelation from his wife, setting him forth on a quest to figure out if being faithful is truly his choice, or rather if it’s something he’s merely settled into casually because of societal expectation. Bill is not like Ziegler, nor the rest of the faceless cult members at the orgy. He discovers the dangers of insane, swinging single life later, as well; after going back to the apartment of Domino, a young prostitute he’d nearly slept with, her roommate lets him know that she is HIV-positive. This and the sinister danger of the cult are enough to propel him back to his happy family life. By the end of the film he discovers he can both have his cake AND eat it, too. It’s called having a wife and being in love, Bill.
There’s not enough time in the world to talk about every last thing I love. Eyes Wide Shut is not given the proper respect it deserves. Maybe if Kubrick made a couple more films before he’d passed, then this wouldn’t be so maligned. Over time, more people have warmed to it, though still not enough. That doesn’t matter, really. I couldn’t care less about the majority. This is a masterpiece from one of the great masters in our time. Kubrick’s sensibilities make this a ride through strange cityscapes, through the darkened corridors of mansions where the rich and powerful conduct their suspicious activities, and we come out on the other side not totally sure of where we’ve been, or where we’re headed. If anything, Eyes Wide Shut is a well crafted mystery-thriller, masquerading as an erotic thriller. At its heart the film concerns the sexual politics of relationships, and of the single life. Nothing is ever simple or bland when in Kubrick’s hands. If only there were a hundred more of his movies.

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