“When ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ came out, it was severely misunderstood, which came as no surprise. If you go back and look at the contemporary reactions to any Kubrick picture, you'll see that all his films were initially misunderstood. Then, after five or ten years came the realization that ‘2001’ or ‘Barry Lyndon’ or ‘The Shining’ was like nothing else before or since.” Martin Scorsese
Stanley Kubrick’s final work was one of the most anticipated films of modern times, thanks to its high-powered stars, the secrecy and length of its shoot, and the fact the director hadn’t delivered a film to Warner Bros since 1987’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’. ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ was never going to have an easy time living up to those expectations, at least in the short term. But like all of the director’s movies, its layers are revealed to us with subsequent viewings, its mystery and intensity growing over time.
Kubrick had previously tackled in his previous films such big subjects and genres such as the Vietnam war (‘Full Metal Jacket’), epic horror (‘The Shining’), youth violence (‘A Clockwork Orange’) and space exploration (‘2001’), so the topic of infidelity and sexual fantasy might seem like a slight end to a career of monumental proportions. So no wonder Kubrick spent the better part of 12 years working on this film, (his executive producer Jan Harlan claims he worked on the script for 30 years). He understood that the mundane is the hardest thing to do.
From the opening shot the film seduces us into a dream-like state, with luscious interiors and luminous Christmas cinematography, navigating the bourgeois circles of the Upper East Side in New York, a rarefied world which is as glamorous as it is sleazy, with drug-overdosed models in toilets and European silver foxes trying to pick up married women. But this is primarily Dr Bill Harford’s (Tom Cruise) journey. When his wife (Nicole Kidman) confesses, in detail, to a sexual desire she had for another man, Bill embarks on a night filled with temptations, in the form of the bereaved daughter of a patient, a prostitute, the teenage (and possibly underage) daughter of a shopkeeper, the infamous sex party which he manages to sneak into, even a male receptionist at a hotel desk. The film resembles an erotic dream that inevitably turns into a nightmare as the temptations turn into conspiracy, murder and finally getting caught by his wife – his ultimate fear.
It is the ‘orgy’ scene that has gathered the most attention: for its explicit sex scenes, and for the censorship that followed whereby some of the nudity was blocked via CGI. Kubrick was contractually obliged to Warner Bros to deliver an R-rated film, as the studio doesn’t really release NC-17 films (the equivalent of an 18 cert in the UK) and he would have edited it had he survived post-production (he died shortly before the film’s release in 1999). In order to protect his final cut, the producers introduced the digital cover. The dull emptiness at the sex party reflects exactly what the filmmaker is trying to illustrate: that these people are both incredibly bored and morally bankrupt.
Misunderstanding is often at the root of people’s problems with Kubrick, and what some interpret as a poor attempt at realism is usually a satire (remember this is the man who directed Dr. Strangelove, one of the most sophisticated and acclaimed filmic satires of all time). What we see in Eyes Wide Shut is not a male fantasy, but rather a judgement on that fantasy.
As with every Kubrick production, the precision of his camera work is only matched by the otherworldliness of the performances. His well-known technique of countless takes of the same shot take their toll on the actors, delivering not so much naturalistic authenticity, but another form of performance altogether. Think of Jack Nicholson’s turn in ‘The Shining’ or Malcolm McDowell in ‘Clockwork Orange’. These are performances that do away with decades of Method-based acting styles and have more in common with the silent era than with the Actor’s Studio.
Kubrick didn’t travel and loved the liberty of shooting in a studio – for someone like him, total control was the ultimate objective. So the New York City we get is a perfect reproduction of the streets of the Village, but re-constructed in Pinewood studios,and is in some ways more connected to the notorious city than many films shot on location in Manhattan. He captures the playground atmosphere of a night-time metropolis with great precision, always connecting the pleasure it offers to the real dangers and risks it poses, with mystery and intrigue at every corner. The score accentuates the edges on which Cruise’s character plays, with the piano hammering away relentlessly.
It is a testament to Stanley Kubrick’s ambitions as an artist and his courage as a filmmaker that he chose this story and that he portrayed the dark side of desire even within a successful marriage. He avoids sentimentality at all costs, but doesn’t dodge true emotions. The foul mouthed but hopeful ending to ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ represents everything that Kubrick’s filmography stood for: a firm belief in humanity wrapped in multiple layers of deceit.