Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Eyes Wide Shut

Grade : A+ Year : 1999 Director : Stanley Kubrick Running Time : 2hr 39min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

Originally Written: April & July 2005

To twist an old saying, “Come for the sex. Stay for the psychology.” If I were to pitch Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” to a major studio, that’s all I would say, because- quite frankly- I think that pretty much says it all.

A lot of times, when a highly-anticipated movie fails to live up to the standards of an audience or critical community that was eagerly waiting to see it- as “Eyes Wide Shut,” with its’ three and a half years of secrecy and rumors about it was- we say that we expected too much from the filmmakers.

In the case of “Eyes Wide Shut”- however- I believe people expected too little. It was once rumored that Kubrick- one of the greatest of all filmmakers- wanted to make a porn film. This rumor first surfaced in the 1970s, I would suspect around the same time he bought the film rights for Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella “Traumnovelle,” or “Dream Story.” Schnitzler’s Fruedian story- which I have not read- is the story Kubrick and Fredric Raphael- who would, after his passing in 1999, discuss Kubrick in not the fondest of lights- would adapt into “Eyes Wide Shut.”

It is hard to see Kubrick making a porn film. Correction- it’s impossible. That is why I suspect- in what would turn out to be his final film- he finally did just that in “Eyes Wide Shut.” But this isn’t Stanley Kubrick making a porn film- this is Stanley Kubrick making a film with the writhing, naked bodies of porn, the structure of a Hitchcockian thriller, and the psychology of a Stanley Kubrick film. In other words, it’s the Stanley Kubrick version of a porn film.

But that first trailer, the one that played at Showest and made the movie a must-see after the first “Star Wars” prequel- maybe even ahead of it- didn’t play that way. All people saw in that was Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, naked, in front of a mirror, getting ready to get down to business as the Chris Isaak song “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” played, and the names- Cruise, Kidman, Kubrick- flashed onscreen. As far as cinematic teases go, this redefined the idea. To date, no better teaser has been crafted for a film.

And then…we finally saw it, and all of those rumors and spoilers- about Cruise and Kidman as psychologists having affairs with their patients, about Cruise wearing a dress, about the orgy- that pointed to the hottest soft-core porn film since “Basic Instinct” were thrown out the window, and the moviegoing public- and many critics- let out a collective “What the Hell?”. Where’s the hot Cruise-Kidman action? Where’s the constant bumping-and-grinding? In short, where’s the spectacle- so secretive that what the film was exactly wasn’t clear until its’ July 16, 1999 release- of seeing Hollywood’s hottest couple- at the time- courageously bare all- literally- for a cinematic legend? The public balked, sat slack-jawed for the film’s 155 minutes, told their friends to stay away, and turned one of the most eagerly-awaited films of all-time into one of the most profound disappointments in history, when its’ maker wasn’t even alive to see high expectations sink like a stone, and its’ stars watch as their biggest gamble turned into their biggest misfire in the minds of many. There hadn’t been this many people in such befuddled shock and awe at the end of a movie since Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Again, we expected too little from Kubrick. I say “we” because I was one of those expecting a hot-and-heavy erotic thriller, even though I had seen “2001,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining,” and “Lolita,” and should have known better.

So how come I wasn’t disappointed with Kubrick’s swan song like everyone else?

Because I saw- with the aid of insights by Roger Ebert and “Time Magazine’s” Richard Schickel- what Kubrick was really after in this movie. Because I had bought the soundtrack a few days before, and it’s aesthetic variety fascinated me (in particular, the haunting strains of Jocelyn Pook’s minimalist underscore, which continues to inspire me, and not just as a composer). Finally, because when I watched “Eyes Wide Shut,” I seemed to forget all I had read about the film for the past three years, and just let the movie happen to me and, for every bit of it’s 2 1/2 hours, leave me spellbound in its’ reality.

“Eyes Wide Shut” is about sex. To go deeper, I would say it’s about sexual fantasies. To go deeper still, I would say it’s about sexual obsession. For me, the film is very much like Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Vertigo,” which is about one man’s obsession with his romantic ideal of a woman. That movie also features fearless performances by two stars- James Stewart and Kim Novak- in the hands of a master- depending on the day you catch me on, Hitchcock IS the greatest filmmaker ever- who was taking chances in a way he never did before, and would rarely do again. “Vertigo”- like “Eyes Wide Shut”- was also a failure at its’ release, only to see a new generation reexamine it, and find things its’ original audience didn’t, which would vault it to its’ current status as one of the greatest films ever made (for me, “Vertigo” is the greatest film I’ve ever seen). My opinion is that this will also happen to “Eyes Wide Shut,” which will enrapture a more objective audience in the future that will elevate it to its’ deserved status as one of Kubrick’s milestones.

To start, “Eyes Wide Shut” is about sexual obsession. Cruise’s Bill Hartford- the film’s main character- finds himself obsessed by thoughts of his wife Alice- Kidman’s character- having sex with another man after they argue while stoned out of their minds, and Alice tells him about a fantasy she had on one of their last vacations. In the events and “adventures” Bill has afterwards, sex is presented both in implication (the amusing scene with Alan Cumming as a hotel desk clerk; the run-in with street thugs who see Bill and think “queer”) and explicit fashion. Bill going home with a prostitute (Vinessa Shaw, both beautiful and sweetly endearing) as he walks the streets after a just-deceased patient’s married daughter (Marie Richardson, projecting longing and vulnerability) hits on him. Bill stumbling upon suspect sexual dealings involving a daughter (Leelee Sobieski) and her father (Rade Sherbedgia) while making a late-night stop at a costume shop for a cloak and mask for the orgy his pianist friend Nick (Todd Field, who directed “In the Bedroom”) has inadvertently let him in on. The orgy itself, a festival of decadence and flesh where the anonymous participants may or may not include a woman Bill saved from a drug overdose while at a social party thrown by one of his patient’s (Cruise’s “The Firm” director, Sidney Pollack, in a dangerously charismatic performance). Everywhere Bill goes, sex follows, or is found. Never acted upon though, either out of chance (the scene with the prostitute, the orgy), or shock (the costume shop owner’s daughter), but because it is in front of him, his imagination is further flamed with the thoughts of his wife’s fantasy. To start, “Eyes Wide Shut” is about sexual obsession.

“Eyes Wide Shut” is about sexual fantasy. The ones we reveal, the ones we don’t; the ones we turn into a reality, the ones we keep to ourselves; the ones we expect, and the ones we don’t. And because the film plays not as real-life but as an erotic dream laced with dread, one can easily see each sexual encounter from either Bill or Alice’s point-of-view, and as an exploration of male and female fetishes and desires. For instance, the scene in front of the mirror from the film’s teaser, no doubt happening to both after the social party they’ve just attended, can also been seen as a projection of Alice’s fantasies (since the brief scene is seen more from her perspective than Bill’s, who seems to just be playing a part), which will be made clear later in the story. The way Alice handles her glasses- a fetish for some men, who are attracted to the look on a woman- during the mirror scene and a later scene when she looks seductively at Bill as the thoughts of her revelation run in his head. The flirtation Bill allows to happen at the party with two models- the possibility of the ultimate male fantasy. The surprising kiss and revelation by Marie Richardson’s married daughter- though Bill rejects it, he took his time pulling away, indicating a possible deep-seeded desire for what he cannot have. Alice’s fantasy about the navel officer. Though it is seen in flashes from Bill’s jealous psyche, its’ telling by Alice- whom Kidman (in one of her best performances) plays as more than just the wife, though she is sort of relegated to that role by the end- is full of sensual longing and desire her husband can’t understand. The scene with Vinessa Shaw’s hooker, which plays out quite differently than you’d expect, begins as a business transaction- or a one-night stand if you wish- but ends more like a first date. Alice’s dance with a dashing, older, Hungarian stranger at the party, whose obvious pick-up lines she is flattered by, and maybe attracted to, though not for him, but for the suave charisma of the flirtation she probably hasn’t seen or felt since she first met Bill. (Cruise, it should be mentioned, gives perhaps his most underrated performance as the acted-upon protagonist- and an ideal surrogate- for the audiences journey as it follows Bill on his.) The orgy, the film’s premiere sequence- both in length and in Kubrick’s detailed staging- in which Bill finds himself surrounded by various acts of “no questions asked” sex, with masks worn by all the participants, so that no one is embarrassed by what they may do or say, or by seeing what others might do or say. The scene infamously underwent a digital tweak shortly before its’ release (and after Kubrick’s death), with the placement of spectators- naked women, cloaked men (both seen from behind)- in front of what Bill’s seeing go on in front of him. The reason? Kubrick was contractually obligated to deliver an R-rating to Warner Bros., and without the alterations, the film would have- correctly- been NC-17. But the joke then- and now- was that the film shouldn’t have been seen by anyone under 17 anyway- it was a form of censorship, though the kind filmmakers have gladly done over the years to boost the potential for box-office. I’ve seen this version- which played in the US and Canada, and was supposedly approved by Kubrick prior to his death- so often that I’ve accepted the film as is, though I remain curious to see the original, unmasked version of this sequence, which played in Europe.

Sometimes, though, the fantasies are dangerous, as the threat- or reality- of death, punishment, and consequences to the Harford’s is almost always intertwined. The danger of being caught by Pollack’s Victor when the hooker ODs in his bathroom. The shadowy figure that looms just behind Bill near the end as he’s asking too many questions about the events the night of the orgy. The prospect of being degregated when he’s found out at the orgy, which ties hand-in-hand with a story Alice tells when he gets home about her own degredation. The suspicious death of the hooker from the bathroom. This is the Kubrickian touch most erotic thrillers- despite their genre- shy away from, as the character’s in Kubrick’s films are thrust head-long into the shadow of death and mortality by the choices they make and must accept whatever consequences they are dealt by those choices. It is this bleakness- in a way, his defiant desire to punish mankind for their arrogance and hubris- that makes Kubrick’s work so memorable to fans, so polarizing to curiosity seekers, and so important to cinema. But Kubrick is not without sympathy, as is evident in the film’s final scene, which seems unabashedly apologetic to his characters for what he’s put them through, but no other ending could exist and be satisfactory. These are not the same Bill and Alice we saw at the beginning. They are not without vulnerabilities. They are more honest. They’ve seen the worst of each other, and they forgive, because they love each other. The final line in “Eyes Wide Shut”- one final subversion by Kubrick- cements their love by suggest they go consumate it the old-fashioned way.

“Eyes Wide Shut” is about sex. Really, there’s little more that can be added to that statement. It looks at those three letters- and the ideas they embody- from angles both erotic and frightening. Whether it is the best movie about sex ever made is debatable (Luis Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour” is a worthy possibility, as is Wong Kar-Wai’s segment “The Hand” from the anthology “Eros”; both also examine sexual fantasy and longing through imagination and fetishes). Whether it’s the sexiest movie ever made is as well, though I would argue that it is. Whether it’s the boldest movie ever made about sex is not.

Originally Written: July 1999

Hey guys. Well, it’s yet another weekend at the multiplexes and a bunch of new movies came out. “Muppets From Space” (eh, I’ll probably wait for video), “The Blair Witch Project” (wanting to see it next; review next week with “The Haunting”), “The Wood” (will see eventually, though not sure when), and “Lake Placid” (will see, but not before “Blair Witch”).

But by far the biggest movie that came out this weekend was “Eyes Wide Shut” with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Next to “The Phantom Menace,” this was the most anticipated movie of not only the year but probably the decade, and if you happened to see the eye-opening 90-second promo that played at the Showest theatre convention this March, you’ll understand one of the several reasons why. The director, Stanley Kubrick (the visionary genius who made such classics as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “The Shining”), was making his first film since 1987’s “Full Metal Jacket,” but that was only a small part of the catalyst for the feverish anticipation of film buffs for this film. This was also one of the most buzzed-about movies in recent memory. Kubrick kept Cruise and Kidman under virtual lock-and-key for an almost unprecedented shooting schedule (15-18 months, depending on who you talk to) during the filming- where only a handful of cast and crew members actually got a glimpse of the entire screenplay, and also maintained a shroud of secrecy around the film’s plot that led to many false rumors and speculations. One of the rumors you may have heard is that Cruise wears a dress on camera. Since I’ve seen the film, I can tell you confidently that he doesn’t. None of the other rumors have any credibility either (except maybe the one where Kubrick shot 95 takes of Cruise walking through a doorway). Something also happened that led to even more speculation. In March, Kubrick died in his sleep, which led to questions of how he left the film (which was screened by Cruise, Kidman, and Warner Bros. heads Terry Semel and Robert Daly only days before).

Well, if you want to know the answer to that one, see the movie for yourself. I’ve stalled as long as I can on writing my synopsis of the film, which is arguably the most difficult one I’ve ever had to write. Not because I thought the movie sucked, but because I don’t even know where to begin in talking about it. And I don’t want to go into all the details of the film, but I’ll go into as many as possible.

“Eyes Wide Shut” is based on an obscure 1926 Fruedian novel by Arthur Schnitzler entitled “Traumnovelle” (“Dream Story”) which was adapted by Kubrick and Fredric Raphael and placed in modern-day Manhattan instead of the original setting of Vienna. Cruise plays William Harford, a doctor who’s been married for 9 years and had a daughter with Kidman’s Alice, who’s a former art gallery director. The film begins with the two preparing for a Christmas party held by one of Harford’s patients, Victor Ziegler (the excellent Sydney Pollack). The first shot we see, Kidman undressing and baring all while Shostakovich’s “Waltz 2 from Jazz Suite” plays in the background, lets you know right off the bat that this is pure adults-only filmmaking (but we’ll come back to that later). At the party, the two go their separate ways, with Cruise at first talking to an old school buddy who’s now a pianist (Todd Field), then later being hit on by two models (or is it the other way around?), while Alice, whose had a few too many glasses of champaine, is being hit on and dancing with a Hungarian suitor. During his encounter with the two girls, Cruise is pulled away by one of Victor’s servants and finds Ziegler upstairs with an overdosed hooker in his bathroom (remember the girl; she’ll become important later). The hooker is revived by Bill and him and Ziegler agree to tell no one about the incident. We see the couple later, back at home, where we are given what is only a taste (about 15-30 seconds worth) of the original 90-second teaser I saw on Entertainment Tonight (Cruise and Kidman in the buff making out in front of a bathroom mirror to Chris Isaack’s “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing”), which was disappointing.

Cut to the next night. Bill and Alice and put their daughter Helena to bed and begin smoking some pot when Alice asks Bill whether he wanted to fuck the two models he was with. Here an arguement erupts between them that leads to Alice sharing a fantasy she had about a naval officer she saw the summer before when they were vacationing. She says that “if he wanted me, only for one night, I was ready to give up everything…”. After this, Bill can hardly think straight, and after he gets a call that one of his patients has died, he goes out to console the daughter, and doesn’t return until early the next morning.

What commences is an almost noirish odyssey where Bill delves into the dark sexual underworld of the city during the next two nights while having disturbing images of his wife and the naval officer making love. This includes a rendezvous with a prostitute (tenderly played by Vinessa Shaw) and Bill crashing in on a secret masked orgy where the pianist at the Christmas party performs.

When the film was first announced, the press release said “Eyes Wide Shut” was “a story of sexual jealousy and obsession starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.” That’s actually a pretty good explanation for the film’s theme, but another element, and a more important one, must be added to that outline. That element is fear. Pretty much from the moment Kidman begins dancing with the Hungarian, fear plays a major role in the film. There’s fear in wondering how Bill will react to Alice dancing with the Hungarian. There’s fear later on Bill’s part in having the images of his wife and the naval officer and if she was serious about what she said. There’s fear later at the orgy of Bill being discovered and the consequences that could await him. And there’s fear after being discovered at the orgy that Bill may have put his wife and daughter in danger.

Now if you’ve ever seen a Stanley Kubrick film, and I assume all of you have, then you know that the director rarely made films that weren’t disturbing, surprising, or difficult to sit through for one reason or another (at 155 minutes you may be checking your watch often, though I didn’t check it once). But then you may also know that he was also a world-class filmmaker, even though he only made 13 films in 46 years. And “Eyes Wide Shut” is a worthy conclusion to his indelible career. It’s one of the most literate, brilliantly-crafted, and daring films I’ve ever seen. it’s also a highly suspenseful, unsettlingly erotic, and very personal dreamlike thriller that casts a haunting spell. This is Kubrick’s “Vertigo,” which, in case you don’t know, is the unequivocal work of art from Alfred Hitchcock that starred James Stewart and Kim Novak in a mesmerizing tale of romantic obsession where Stewart is so haunted by his “ideal” woman that he makes over another woman (both played by Novak) in her image, only to lose both. Although the sympathy we feel for Bill and Alice doesn’t quite match up to our sympathy for Stewart and Novak in “Vertigo,” nor does the film reach the level of creativity and complexity, it’s hard not to be moved when Bill breaks down late in the film to tell Alice what he did the night before.

It’s here we must credit the two stars of the film, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. They gave themselves completely to this project and became great friends with Kubrick during filming, and it comes through in their memorable, Oscar-caliber characterizations. Cruise invests Bill with a disturbing (and beguiling) naivete that makes him all-too human, but also lets enough of his own star shine and ability for realistic acting come through to make Bill surprisingly likable despite his decisions. Kidman, whose primarily in the first third of the movie before it moves its’ focus to Bill, is her husband’s equal. There’s a confidence and strength in Alice, even when she has been drinking, that is enough to sustain her throughout the movie as a sympathetic character. Also, the scene where Alice tells Bill about her fantasy is a showcase for Kidman and a highpoint in her career. Although it wasn’t originally planned to have the characters played by a real-life couple, I don’t think the movie would have worked otherwise. Knowing the fact that Cruise and Kidman are married makes some of the more intimate scenes a bit voyeuristic to watch, but the chemistry between them is so real and palpable that we do become invested in Bill and Alice despite their occasional shortcomings.

But as a whole, the film is ultimately Kubrick’s achievement, not Cruise and Kidman’s. If you go in expecting plenty of hot-and-heavy sex between Cruise and Kidman, prepare for big-time disappointment. Kubrick- who had first discussed adapting Schinitzler’s novel after “2001”- wasn’t out to make a big-budget porn flick (although he joked about it in the early ’70s). He’s much too talented a filmmaker for that. There’s plenty of sex, nudity, and innuendo in the film, but Kubrick wanted to make something deeper, more psychological and more in sync with what Schnitzler had come up with originally (I haven’t read the original novel, but I plan on doing so), and for the most part, he succeeds (the film’s most noticeable flaw is the clean-slate ending). Kubrick was a master of ambiguity; anybody who saw “2001” could tell you that. Can we trust Ziegler at the end when he explains things to Cruise? How does Cruise recognize the woman in the morgue as the one who helped him at the orgy? Both good questions; neither with obvious answers. But it’s the ambiguity throughout “Eyes Wide Shut” that makes it far better and more artistically satisfying than “Basic Instinct,” “Wild Things,” and other erotic thrillers that, while entertaining enough, deal more in flesh than fleshing-out psychologically-intricate plot-lines.

Kubrick’s technical mastery and brilliance as a storyteller also works itself into that equation. The way he edits, the way he moves his camera (“Eyes Wide Shut” so far ranks as the best shot movie of the year), and in particular his choice of music. Along with “Clockwork Orange” and “2001,” the latter of which is arguably the best combination of visuals and music in film history. “Eyes Wide Shut” should become a model for filmmakers when it comes to combining visuals and music. Aside with the Shostakovich and Chris Isaak’s song, there are only two other noteworthy composers whose pieces are featured here. The first is a Kubrick veteran from “2001”- Gyorgy Ligeti. The piece is a piano work called “Musica Ricercata, II (Mesto, rigido e cerimoniale),” which is used in reference to Bill’s growing paranoia surrounding the orgy, and to brilliant, tension-building effect, I might add. The next composer is a relative newcomer, Jocelyn Pook, who wrote all of the original music in the film. One thing worth noting is that there’s no real “theme” to Pook’s music. She wrote four pieces of underscore that all have two things in common- they’re all very minimalistic and both give off a hypnotic feel that reminded me of two scores in particular- Bernard Herrmann’s romantic score for “Vertigo” and Graeme Revell’s haunting work on “The Crow.” And like those two scores, this one of the great ones, even though the four tracks only add up to a little over 17 minutes of music. But the impression those 17 minutes leave is indelible when heard with the film.

This is especially true when it comes to the controversial orgy sequence, which is the film’s haunting centerpiece and one of the greatest sequences I’ve seen in a Kubrick film. (F.Y.I.- I’ve now seen 7 of the director’s 13 films, including almost all of them from “Lolita” on.) Here’s the uproar about it. In the orgy that Bill infiltrates, Kubrick shows much nudity and graphic sexuality (though no genetalia) at a slight distance from the constantly-moving camera. This did not please the MPAA, which were going to slap the film with the much-avoided NC-17. Since Kubrick had to deliver an R, he approved the addition of digital figures in front of, though not totally blocking, the exceptionally carnal sex acts taking place. Last week critics were shown both versions, and many were not pleased with the changes (Roger Ebert, who called the manipulated cut the “Austin Powers version,” considered the version the US and Canada are playing a “travesty”).

I wouldn’t go that far. The additions are well-done, and yes, I would prefer seeing the unchanged version in theaters (I’m hoping they release this version on video or DVD or whatever the hell I’m watching by the time this hits video stores), but the impact of the scene in terms of suspense and titilation remains potent. But this brings up more important issues in terms of censorship. For instance, how did this film get an R with just these “minor” changes? My guess would be the lack of violence and virtual absence of foul language, because the nudity and sexuality alone deserves an NC-17 or Unrated. But then I have to ask, how on Earth could the MPAA have the gall to order changes to Kubrick’s last masterwork in order to get an R (keep in mind that the acts are shown at a distance), while they give stuff like “American Pie,” which features (based on the previews) a close-up look at the main character with his dick in an apple pie, an R rating (although admittedly they did that film an NC-17 four times before an R was granted). I guess what I’m asking is why is comedy allowed to get away with arguably more obscene and tasteless sexuality when something as artistic and tastefully made like “Eyes Wide Shut” has to work for it. Whatever the answer is, it’s not pretty.

As for me, I’d much rather see “Eyes Wide Shut” with an NC-17 or Unrated than an R with changes made. Why? Well, the first thing is to retain Kubrick’s final vision. Secondly, it’s strictly an adult movie, and an R rating means that people under 17, who may not be mature enough to understand the film’s rich psychology or meaning, can be allowed access. Warner Bros. may have thought they would be in for a box-office disaster by giving an NC-17 and Unrated, since they would lose the all-too-important teen box-office dollars, but how many teenagers would really want to see “Eyes Wide Shut” anyway? Actually ask teens, they might say they would want to see Tom and Nicole naked, but even that would be unlikely. I bet they’d be more likely to say they’d rather see the next movie starring James Van Der Beek (“Dawson’s Creek”) or a sequel to “American Pie” than “Eyes Wide Shut” (not to bundle together all teens with this comment, but that’s what I believe). And besides, when was the last time adults had a movie all for themselves that was intelligent, sophisticated, and sensual without the idiotic humor and loud special effects that inhabit most multiplexes these days? Thank you Stanley, Tom, and Nicole, for giving us just that type of movie. I just wish the MPAA and Warner Bros. had given it to us the way it should’ve been.

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